What to make of Sunderland’s season? It depends what mood you and they are in.
There probably isn’t a more suitable nickname in the Premier League than the one adopted by the men from the Stadium of Light. Black cats are either considered lucky or unlucky depending on what culture you adopt, and the Black Cats from the north-east are either good or bad too.
Mackems supporters are likely to opt for the latter description for the majority of their club’s season though, even if Sunderland’s struggles haven’t been easily apparent to the rest of us.
Bar a six-game winless streak which took in all of October and much of November, Sunderland and boss Martin O’Neill have always just done enough to maintain an air of control. Wins like the Boxing Day success over Manchester City – a now customary victory following on from last season’s – gave the impression that everything was serene on the surface, but below deck those black cats’ legs were whirring wildly.
Now, Sunderland sit just five points and three places above the relegation zone. They have lost all three of their games in February and now face what has suddenly become a huge home match against Fulham, another of the division’s great inconsistencies, on Saturday afternoon.
There are clearly talented performers in O’Neill’s team.
Steven Fletcher has proven himself to be a genuine Premier League forward, Stephane Sessegnon is capable of fantastic performances when he’s in the mood, and Simon Mignolet looks to be a goalkeeper who is destined to play for one of the big boys one day.
The individual talents are certainly there for O’Neill, but as can be true with every individual, the team has far too many bad days to compensate for the good.
Only seven of Sunderland’s 27 Premier League games this season have ended in wins, and whilst that is more than the five clubs who currently sit below them it is clearly not enough given the talents they have at their disposal.
Last season, when O’Neill entered the club in December and steered them away from the relegation zone and eventually to within two points of a top half finish, the likes of Sessegnon, Seb Larsson and James McClean all starred.
The arrivals of Adam Johnson and Fletcher saw new, potentially exciting elements added to that trio, and whilst the Scot has been an undoubted success given his 10 goals over the campaign, Johnson’s inconsistencies have mirrored those of his team.
The sometime England winger is capable of some fine performances on his day, but his day doesn’t come around often enough – a fact borne out by his struggles to break into the Manchester City team and his eventual sale by Roberto Mancini.
O’Neill has recently added Danny Graham to the mix, although the forward’s similarity to Fletcher does leave concerns that the pair won’t be able to form a potent partnership. The French midfielder Alfred N’Diaye looks to be an energetic enough arrival, but there remains a belief that Sunderland failed to strengthen in key areas during January. They are still playing midfielders at full-back regularly.
All of that adds to the often makeshift nature of a team and club who look as though they are not sure where to be. They need to be out of relegation trouble obviously, but that isn’t enough for a club of Sunderland’s stature.
Their inconsistent nature simply can’t be allowed to go on, especially if they want to avoid getting sucked in to the battle at the bottom.
Sunderland need to find themselves, and find a few more wins in the process.
If a team is playing badly then can Fantasy bosses trust their players on a double Gameweek? We’re about to find out.
Sunderland have won just one of their last nine games, a run which has seen them slide down the table and now sit just one point and one place above the relegation zone.
It is hardly stellar form and they are results which have cast serious doubt of the future of boss Martin O’Neill, who will be desperate to pick up at least one positive result in the days ahead as his team face two very different challenges.
First up is Chelsea on Saturday, and with Rafael Benitez struggling to adapt to the very peculiar demands of the Stamford Bridge hotseat – in the Premier League at least – then the Black Cats are likely to fancy their chances ahead of that and their second game of the week against Reading on Tuesday.
Fantasy bosses who are playing the long game will have had Steven Fletcher (£7.2m) in mind for this Gameweek for as long as Sunderland’s game against the Royals was called off due to excessive rain in the north east in August – a common occurrence there – but with the Scot struggling with an ankle injury then it might pay to switch those sights to Stephane Sessegnon (£7.4m) now.
This season the Benin international might not have hit the heights that he regularly found during his last campaign when he registered seven goals and 12 assists, but there have been signs that he’s returning to form recently and whatever Sunderland do over their next 180 minutes is likely to heavily involve him.
Fletcher, Adam Johnson (£6.8m), Craig Gardner (£4.9m), Carlos Cuellar (£4.6m) and goalkeeper Simon Mignolet (£5.1m) are others to keep an eye during Sunderland’s heavy workload, but it is next Tuesday’s opponents Reading who might offer the greater value for your Fantasy cash.
A Saturday match at fellow strugglers Southampton is followed by that Sunderland meeting next week for Brian McDermott’s men, and with forward Adam Le Fondre (£4.9m) forcing himself to the front of Reading’s queue of forwards in recent weeks the 26-year-old could be seen as an inexpensive gamble.
Reading will fancy their chances of finding the net against their two red and white striped opponents, with Le Fondre, Jason Roberts (£4.5m), Jobi McAnuff (£5.1m) and Hal Robson-Kanu (£4.3m) all offering the chance of cheap thrills for your side. At the back, defender Sean Morrison (£4.0m) has come into the team in recent weeks and showed an eye for goal.
With neither of the teams involved in the double Gameweek looking particularly convincing, you might be tempted to look at the teams playing in the regulation one, with the biggest one of those coming at the Etihad Stadium.
The Manchester derby is probably even tougher to call than the usual big name Premier League tussles, but with Wayne Rooney (£11.7m) finally finding his goalscoring form at Reading last week then he’ll be one to watch. Sergio Aguero (£11.0m) started Manchester City’s last two games on the bench and so will surely be turned to from the beginning for the hosts.
In Sunday’s other matches it can’t have escaped Fantasy players’ notice that Tottenham are likely to be missing Gareth Bale for their trip to Everton whilst Luis Suarez (£10.5m) is banned for Liverpool’s visit to West Ham, a state of affairs which could see midfielder Jonjo Shelvey (£5.2m) start upfront and Jose Enrique (£6.0m) pushed up to the left wing again.
A day earlier and up in North London, Arsenal will want to emerge from their latest crisis at home to West Brom and can do if forward Olivier Giroud (£8.5m) is handed a start.
The Frenchman had scored three goals in his previous two home games before being left on the bench for last weekend’s loss to Swansea – Michu is now up to £7.8m ahead of their game at home to Norwich by the way – and if Arsene Wenger turns to his summer signing then he could find that his team gain a bit of luck in front of goal.
Luck which should be on everyone’s wish list this weekend and beyond.