Sunderland currently sit on no points from a possible six in the Premier League. After Sunday's home loss to local rivals Middlesbrough exposed severe shortcomings in the Black Cats' squad.
David Moyes' side may have been depleted thanks to various injuries, but that was no excuse for a performance that has left fans strapping themselves in for what could well be another relegation battle if the squad is not strengthened before the transfer window shuts on September 1.
A brace from Uruguyan winger Cristhian Stuani was enough to see the Teesiders over the line, with a Patrick van Aanholt strike in the second half only proving to be a consolation for the home side, who were incredibly poor at times throughout the match.
Injuries saw Moyes field largely inexperienced side
Moyes opted to stick with the 4-2-3-1 system that saw Sunderland almost steal a draw at the Etihad Stadium last week, with a few changes of personnel in order thanks to injury problems, in addition to the sale of Younes Kaboul to Watford.
John O'Shea moved from midfield to central defence, with new signing Papy Djilobodji making his debut for the club alongside the captain. Adnan Januzaj made his first start for the club playing on the right side of the three, while Duncan Watmore took a more central position due to the injury to Fabio Borini earlier in the week. Paddy McNair was also handed his first start in a Sunderland shirt after his unfortunate own-goal against Manchester City saw Moyes' men head into the Wear-Tees derby with no points rather than one.
Sunderland made good use of the wide areas early on in the game, with Januzaj looking to make runs down the right flank before cutting inside and looking to feed an on-rushing attacker in the penalty area. However, the Belgian was frequently left to face two or sometimes even three Boro defenders alone as right-back Donald Love seemed to be unsure when to overlap and when to stay back, sometimes refusing to run ahead of Januzaj and thus stifling the attacking move but then minutes later bombing forward and over committing which then allowed Aitor Karanka's side to counter-attack.
Stuani was the star man for Karanka's side thanks to his two goals, and it was no surprise that he looked to get on the ball as much as possible against Love, who looks like a man that has yet to adapt to playing regular Premier League football. Middlesbrough's second goal in particular showcased how they used the 4-2-3-1 system correctly, whilst simultaneously exposing Sunderland for getting it horribly wrong. The slick passing move from the away side pulled Sunderland's defence and midfield all around the pitch, allowing Alvaro Negredo to easily drift unnoticed into the penalty area and slide the ball across goal to the unmarked Stuani who only had to tap the ball into the net for 2-0.
In stark contrast to Sunderland's disorganised and frantic style of defending, Karanka's side were typically hard to break down in the second half when the home side were chasing the game and throwing everything at the Teesiders. The Boro back four were a well-oiled machine, with central defenders Antonio Barragan and Ben Gibson both keeping tabs on Jermain Defoe and ensuring that he did not have any space to run into, instead forcing the goal poacher to play with his back to goal outside of the penalty area which is exactly where he doesn't want to be. George Friend and Emilio Nsue did not stray too far from their defensive partners, staying relatively narrow again in an attempt to restrict the space in and around the penalty area for Defoe in particular, knowing that Sunderland do not possess a target man such as Negredo to play outside of the area effectively.
Lack of penetration Sunderland's downfall
The main factor that was absent in Sunderland's play yesterday afternoon was the final ball, and the penetrating run to go with it. Defoe, who is usually a livewire in and around the penalty area, was immobile for much of the game and this lack of movement took away the most lethal weapon in the Black Cats' arsenal. Yes he was being tightly marked by the two opposing centre-backs, but the 33-year-old simply did not attempt to get in behind the defenders enough. This led to a large amount of sideways and backwards passing from the home side, with midfielders playing it between themselves for a while whilst waiting for movement that would never arrive.
Something else that was alarmingly apparent from Sunderland's point of view, was the inability of the two defensive midfielders to retain possession in a calm and controlled manner. Jack Rodwell and McNair are a sizeable step down from Jan Kirchhoff and Yann M'Vila, with the latter pairing displaying a thousand times the composure and ability that the home side so desperately needed in the middle of the park yesterday. With Kirchhoff out for a few weeks and M'Vila's transfer seemingly in limbo, the club are going to have to delve into the transfer market before it is too late, or they will face a long first half of the season struggling to impose themselves on opposing midfields.
Watmore is a player that is still developing in the top-flight, but if he is to be of any use to the squad his strengths must be utilised properly. His pace is his biggest asset, and that was wasted in the centre of the pitch against Middlesbrough, with Lynden Gooch playing on the left despite possessing more quality passing wise when compared to Watmore. Gooch would eventually drop deeper into central midfield in the second half, alongside Steven Pienaar who of course lacks the fitness of the American given that he is now 35 years of age. Pienaar was given more licence to run forward which did push Sunderland up the field a little, but even then the lack of any urgency or penetration proved to be Sunderland's downfall, with their consolation goal practically handed to them on a plate by Boro keeper Brad Guzan.
All in all it was a disappointing display from the home side, who will face Shrewsbury Town in the EFL Cup on Wednesday evening in a game that they hope will instill a winning feeling in the side once again.