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Monday night's horror show at Carrow Road was a particularly difficult pill to swallow. Not because the performance was rubbish and we lost the game, though. As Sunderland fans, we are used to that and simply can't afford to be bad losers. What made Monday's surrender so especially tough to take was that it was all so soul-crushingly familiar. The same old problems with the management seemingly totally oblivious to there being anything needing to be changed, never mind then being capable of actually changing it. There must have been a collective cry of frustrated derision from the homes and pubs of Wearside as the Sky TV camera focused in on a Sunderland bench lacking any kind of activity shortly after Steve Morrison doubled the Norwich lead.
After spending a week hearing their manager obsessively crow about how a single victory entirely vindicates everything he does and using it to ridicule and dismiss concerns of fans, it is perhaps understandable that the players had a certain air of complacency about them at Norwich. But the biggest worry for me was how predictably easy we were to defend against.
It is probably fair to say that only once this season have Sunderland consistently looked like threatening the space behind the opposition centre backs. On that occasion, Asamoah Gyan was in particularly wasteful mood at the Liberty Stadium. Against Stoke, for all it was a performance full of verve and energy, it is also fair to say that the team benefited from getting large slices of good fortune at crucial times. Not that I'm complaining about that, of course, but a goalkeeper error, an own goal, and a massively deflected shot from outside the area all carry with them a large element of luck. The point is, for all the good and attractive approach play we were treated to that day, there was not the plethora of clear chances created that you can expect to see accompanying such dominance.
It used to be very different. With Darren Bent leading the line attacking was simply a case of maneuvering good possession close enough to the goal for Bent's sharpness to do the rest. It was easy. It was, perhaps, TOO easy. Without a naturally gifted and incisive goalscorer upon which to rely, attacks have become lacklustre and laborious, seemingly bereft of any discernible plan of how to break down the best defences the country has to offer. No one can accuse Bruce of failing to bring genuine quality and pedigree strikers to the club, either. Asamoah Gyan and Niklas Bendtner are top class footballers. No questioning that. But neither possess the natural predatory instincts of their predecessor.
Perhaps the most alarming thing is that this is not the first time Bruce has found goals difficult to craft without a natural goalscorer in top form making it easy for him. When at Birmingham, his best times coincided with Mikeal Forsell's individual goalscoring exploits. When Forsell suffered a serious knee injury, Birmingham's goals dried up, results gradually deteriorated, and Birmingham were relegated. In his tenure at Wigan, his team's fortunes were closely linked to that of Amr Zaki. When the Egyptian's form took a dramatic downturn, so did that of the entire club.
With so much difficulty being experienced scoring goals, the question must be asked whether there is any actual methodology in place or whether Bruce's idea is just to throw players at it and hope one hits a purple patch. Nicklas Bendtner produced some hold-up play of genuine quality at Carrow Road, yet every time he pulled a centre back out of the line before bringing the Sunderland midfield into play, there was no one exploiting the space he created and the ball had to go sideways whilst we waited for the Dane to show for it again. We no longer have the players available to us to succeed with the kind of football upon which Darren Bent thrived.
If we want to see evidence of how a club without a marquis striker can still prosper in front of goal then, annoyingly, we have to look no further than up the road. There is nothing flash about Demba Ba, Shola Ameobi, and Leon Best, but you always fancy one of them to nick a goal. Newcastle have not tried to shoe-horn them into a system to which they are not suited. They know that quality delivery and committing men forward will reap the most rewards with what they have available. It is time their Sunderland counter-parts started showing a similar level of tactical flexibility to maximise what we have, rather than rue what we lost.
It is definitely time for Bruce to have a serious rethink, although if he ever reads this I'd imagine he'd just dismiss me as a 'hysterical' trouble-maker still struggling to rationally accept losing a derby. Whether or not he is capable of coming up with an alternative plan to replace Bent's goals isn't really the question - it is whether he is even prepared to accept that a new plan is actually needed. I am starting to worry that it is a concession he is unwilling to make.