SUNDERLAND’S pre-season tour of Portugal ended with a broken down team bus outside the Estadio Municipal de Albufeira, when a fleet of taxis had to be called on to save the day.
While travelling fans made the most of the opportunity to mix with players and pose for photographs with Gustavo Poyet at the end of the three-match stay in the Algarve, the Black Cats manager remained relaxed and friendly despite the obvious frustrations of being delayed.
Eventually Poyet and his backroom team got back to the hotel, where he reflected on a tour of many positives but one obvious negative: How to get Sunderland scoring goals?
Aside from the 5-1 win at non-league Darlington last month, not a single first team player has scored in one of the main friendlies. In fact had it not been for the contributions of the development squad at different stages of the summer, Sunderland might not have scored at all.
Poyet is not overly concerned, knowing the plan is to bring in different options in attack during the next few weeks to bring an extra dimension and unpredictability to the way Sunderland attack.
But there can be no disguising that Sunderland were not particularly creative in the Algarve, failing to seriously test either goalkeeper against CD Nacional on Wednesday and then Vitoria Setubal on Saturday night. Young striker Mikael Mandron scored the only goal of the tour, when the Under-21s were flown out to defeat Recreativo de Huelva courtesy of a spot-kick last Tuesday.
“It’s something we need to improve,” said Poyet. “Worry? No. At times we were passing the ball and we were fresh, so we will get plenty of chances in situations like that. The problem will become more and more difficult if we don’t start scoring.
“You just need that little bit of extra quality sometimes. That little bit of different ability that you need in the last third. You need more players so you can change things. But it’s clear that we need to score more goals. I’m looking for players to add to the options in those positions.”
Despite the low-key nature of the three friendlies played in the heat of the Algarve and on a less than perfect surface, there were encouraging signs over the course of the few days.
Poyet said: “I’m not bothered about the goals. If we were just kicking the ball forward and getting rebounds every now and then getting a chance, then I would be. But we are not.
“All we need to do is finish better. We counted five or six times that we got behind the back four on Saturday in the first half. The pitch wasn’t great, so that didn’t help when it came down to the last ball.”
Sunderland’s latest signing Patrick van Aanholt showed enough to suggest over the course of the week that he will possess the attacking verve from full-back the manager is looking for. He got himself in to decent positions to deliver crosses.
Striker Steven Fletcher might not have had too many gilt-edged chances, but he looked fresh and hungry to shine after a frustrating time last season with injuries and form. If he continues in that manner, there is no reason to believe the £12m man will not get his confidence back in front of the net.
Arguably the brightest spots were from those many would not have expected. Charis Mavrias, the Greek winger, has enjoyed a promising pre-season even when asked to play out of position at right-back. Poyet has noted that.
Mavrias looked frustrated when things did not go his way because he was clearly playing with the intention to impress the boss in the hope of forcing his way in to the his plans.
There is also reason to believe that El-Hadji Ba could have a bigger role to play after displaying plenty of potential in his midfield performances. The reality, though, is that Sunderland require the extra options to move forward.
“The players have been excellent in Portugal,” said Poyet. “They have been working very hard. They have enjoyed their time here. We have started to make the group that we want to make and everything is coming along nicely.
“We just need to make sure the new players that now come in can integrate quickly. It’s important that all of the players, new and old, fight for each other on the pitch and we will develop as a team together.”
Sunderland (4-1-4-1): Pantilimon; Mavrias, Roberge, O’Shea, van Aanholt; Bridcutt; Johnson, Gomez, Giaccherini (Ba 75), Wickham; Fletcher (N’Diaye 61). Subs: Brown, Cattermole, Dixon (gk).
Vitoria Setubal (4-3-3): Ricardo Baptista; Queiros, Venancio, Marcos (Miguel Lourenco 64), Ney; Joao (Junior Ponce 46), Dany (Ericson 61), Paulo Tavares (Kiko 61); Zequinha (Forbes 64), Giovani (Yann 64), Miguel Pedro (Pelkas 46). Subs: Lukas, Francois, Diogo Rosado.