Forget sparkling turnaround – it’s going to be an arduous and dull route towards survival under Allardyce

Sam Allardyce watches on against Southampton
Sam Allardyce watches on against Southampton

Remember the time when Sunderland managers would bemoan the multi-million pound opposition substitutes after a defeat at Manchester City, Chelsea or Arsenal?

Not any more. Now Sunderland can rub shoulders with the elite and boast a £40-odd million bench – roughly the outlay of the seven replacements on Saturday, who included £13m Jeremain Lens, £10m Fabio Borini and £10m Jack Rodwell.

Dusan Tadic celebrates his penalty

Dusan Tadic celebrates his penalty

The slight fly in the ointment is that Sunderland are second-bottom, not second-top.

Sunderland’s two big-money additions from this summer, and the one from 12 months earlier, aren’t even deemed good enough for a place in the starting XI.

That sums up the mess this club is in.

Compare Sunderland with Southampton – lords of the transfer market.

The Saints spent around £20m on Jordy Clasie and Virgil van Dijk – two players who had both been considered by Sunderland, particularly the latter – and they were their stand-out performers on Saturday.

Clasie completely dictated proceedings in the middle of the park, while van Dijk was dominant at the back.

It inevitably begged the question of why Sunderland didn’t splash out on van Dijk after tracking him for 18 months, rather than recruiting cheaper alternatives, albeit Younes Kaboul and Sebastian Coates were two of the Black Cats’ better performers on Saturday.

It’s not Sam Allardyce’s fault. None of these players are his signings.

Allardyce is fire-fighting; desperately searching for a winning solution and players who have sufficient grit and character for the relegation battle, regardless of their price tags.

Few supporters would have begrudged his decision to opt for Jordi Gomez, rather than Rodwell, as the replacement for the injured Lee Cattermole, while there are clearly issues over Lens’ defensive contribution.

There has been a clamour for Duncan Watmore to be given a chance in the starting XI too, even though the 21-year-old only produced flashes on his full debut due to Sunderland’s desperate struggles in mounting any hint of pressure on a Southampton defence sporting pipes and slippers.

The selection decision that Allardyce got wrong, in hindsight, was to break up the Jermain Defoe / Steven Fletcher partnership, which had looked so promising at Everton.

Fletcher was left thanklessly isolated and it was no surprise that there was plenty of sympathy when he was removed in a bizarre substitution for Rodwell.

Even then though, Allardyce’s decision to revert to a 4-5-1 and adopt a more compact, defensively solid set-up was understandable after shipping six on Merseyside, particularly when facing a Southampton side who are so good at maintaining possession.

The bottom line, though is that however much money Sunderland seem to throw at new recruits, they just don’t make that positive impression on the side.

That trend will HAVE to be reversed in January, with Dick Advocaat’s prophecy about this squad not being good enough to survive beginning to hauntingly resonate.

Faced with this group of players signed by five different managers / head coaches and two directors of football, Allardyce clearly doesn’t know his strongest XI or strongest system.

No-one does though.

Delve into the archives and there’s a statistic which sends a shiver down the spine. Sunderland have not named an unchanged starting line-up since May 2014.

Allardyce wants a settled side where he can merely make tweaks depending on injuries or suspensions, but he has no foundations upon which to build.

Is it any wonder then that he went back to basics with a pragmatic game-plan designed to stifle, rather than spark a repeat of the open kamikaze football at Everton?

Yes, it made for an awful spectacle, not helped by Sunderland’s inability to muster any meaningful efforts until after they had gone behind.

But Allardyce’s reputation has been built by putting points on the board by hook or by crook.

It’s going to be an arduous, at times dull, route towards survival under Allardyce over the next few months, rather than any sparkling turnaround.

Speaking with Allardyce 48 hours before kick-off last week, he clearly envisaged the game panning out in such circumstances.

“The crowd has to be patient with us and hopefully, in the end, we can all get the reward by exposing them and scoring one more goal than they do,” he said.

But if Sunderland had seen the encounter through to a dire 0-0, it would be seen as a point gained, particularly after Costel Pantilimon made a brace of smart saves, and Coates and DeAndre Yedlin cleared off the line.

Another self-inflicted blow, conceding the penalty converted by Dusan Tadic, ruined that, and from Yann M’Vila of all people – the stand-out performer in a red and white shirt all season.

That’s what happens when Sunderland try to be uber-defensive. They eventually buckle by shooting themselves in the foot.

Neither can they succeed by going gung-ho. Without suitable protection, we’ve all seen the desperate fragility of this back-line.

Allardyce must try to find a balance, which both Gus Poyet and Advocaat were only able to manage sporadically.

The new Sunderland manager must also find some points.

When he composed a blueprint for Sunderland’s survival, Allardyce was looking to reach a double figure points tally after his opening eight games at the helm.

That leaves the Black Cats requiring four points from the next four.

Ordinarily, that would be a modest tally, but, after an utterly dispiriting defeat, even that looks a tall order for a club with such deep problems.