Our tactical eye casts a look at the Bolton Wanderers game this weekend gone.
Martin O'Neill made three changes to the team that drew at Villa Park - Fraizer Campbell came in for the injured Sebastian Larsson and the gossips were true as Craig Gordon made his first competitive start for over a year. Lee Cattermole shook off that persistent knee injury to fill the space in midfield left by Craig Gardner's one-match suspension.
For Bolton, Kevin Davies returned to the starting line-up against the side that courted him throughout most of the January transfer window. He partnered David N'Gog in attack, indicating that Bolton rather fancied its chances against a team that hasn't won in April.
Relinquishing The Edge Of Your Area Isn't Big Or Clever
Having been defensively resolute of late, Sunderland seemed to abandon the principles on which three clean sheets of out of four were built. The best example of this came prior to Bolton's first goal which saw the visitors churn out a number of decent chances for N'Gog and Chris Eagles. The following displays the shot zones from the game, with Bolton less restricted to shooting from range due to Sunderland's inability to command the edge of its own penalty area.
Then, having discarded the warning signs, Bolton took a deserved lead through Sunderland again failing to command the defensive third of the pitch. Kevin Davies was granted time and space to guide a lofted Eagles pass into Martin Petrov's path, and the only thing more criminal (from a football perspective) was what followed; Davies was not picked up by either Michael Turner or the retreating Matt Kilgallon. Perhaps I am too harsh on Kilgallon here, but given that the play was situated on the right-hand side of Sunderland's defence, Kilgallon, looking in-field, could see Davies' movement and was deep enough to react. Turner was equally as guilty of ball-watching as Petrov's cross drifted over the pair, but it was certainly a situation that should have been avoided, not repeated in the second half.
Kilgallon, again the guilty party for Davies' second as he was caught underneath the ball, but Campbell's attempt to prevent Sam Ricketts' cross were the actions of a tired man. Having previously received treatment for cramp, Campbell's exhaustion restricted him from not only getting close enough to the full-back initially, but then failing to react in time as Ricketts cut back on to his right foot. Martin O'Neill immediately replaced Campbell, but the damage had been done.
Colback Is Much, Much More Than A Holding Midfielder
Similarly to this time last season, possibly the only positive in this lackluster run has been the form of Jack Colback. The red-haired midfielder has become an integral part of the team this season and with that, his knowledge of the game has simmered to the boil. He knows when to hold his shape, when to advance beyond the wandering Bendtner, and when to outskirt James McClean to help out his winger who is receiving preferential treatment of late. Frustratingly, however, a number of timely darting runs from Colback were missed by his team-mates.
In a game where Sunderland completed 75% of its passes overall, Colback's contribution (92% of 26 passes, including the incisive assist for Nicklas Bendtner's equaliser) further up the field cannot be underestimated yet his partnership with Cattermole produced 11 interceptions. Colback is a more-than adequate patient pressing midfielder - the type needed for Sunderland's now default counter-attacking system - but at a time where his manager has talked about having the conviction to create chances, Colback's vision (both with and without the ball) is becoming an ever increasingly valuable tool.
Well, we scored, which is an improvement on recent weeks - especially when you consider the quality of each - but what is slightly more concerning was the lack of responsibility at the back. John O'Shea and Turner have both captained the side and, generally, are not afraid of organising when needs be. Critically, neither did so in this game and it gave the experienced Davies two simple opportunities. Being that unorganised in those situations can be attributed to something everyone connected with Sunderland feared - switching off. O'Neill has spoken publicly to counteract it, but with two games to go complacency may be a defining factor in how Sunderland prepares for next season.