THERE was a moment, with around ten minutes to go in Tuesday’s desperately disappointing draw with QPR, when Sunderland had possession close to the halfway line.
They passed the ball four times quickly in succession, but two of the passes went sideways and the other two were directed backwards.
Eventually, the ball ended up with Simon Mignolet, and he booted it upfield straight down the throat of QPR centre-half Clint Hill.
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There, in a nutshell, was the problem that Martin O’Neill and his players are desperately wrestling with as they attempt to salvage a season that is tumbling towards the abyss.
O’Neill described it as a “fear factor” in his postmatch interviews, a reluctance to try anything too adventurous or daring in case things go wrong.
Bravery in football comes in many forms, but it is not always the player that throws himself into a 50-50 tackle that is the bravest in the squad. Sometimes, bravery means having the mental fortitude to take a risk and try something unexpected.
At the minute, that is what is lacking from Sunderland’s game, a willingness to take a calculated gamble in order to make something happen.
It was impossible to detect such creative leadership on Tuesday, yet this is a Black Cats side that should boast sufficient experienced play makers to successfully address the dearth of creativity that has been apparent in so many games this season.
The likes of Stephane Sessegnon, Adam Johnson and Seb Larsson are proven international midfielders, and while their confidence will understandably have been knocked by recent results, this is not the time for them to retreat into their shells.
After Sunderland travel to Norwich on Sunday, four of their next six matches see them face Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City and Tottenham. Repeat Tuesday night’s passivity in those games, and the league table could make extremely alarming viewing at the turn of the year.
“The work ethic’s there for everyone to see, but there’s times where we’ve got comfortable possession and the opposition’s got everyone behind the ball so at times we need to force that pass more and create something,” said a refreshingly honest Phil Bardsley.
“That means giving the ball away sometimes, which can be frustrating at times, but we’ve got to try and pass the ball forward and get it to the players with a bit of guile and flair.
“We’ve got to get them on the ball in the right areas and, at the minute, we’re just struggling to do that. If it’s not going great, it’s difficult to do that, but it’s for us to keep plugging away and I’m sure it will come.”
Perhaps O’Neill could be doing more with his team selection to help his players pose an increased attacking threat?
The Black Cats boss has been reluctant to play with two strikers throughout his Wearside reign, but the current formation, with Sessegnon tending to play behind Steven Fletcher, is clearly not working.
There were times on Tuesday when Fletcher was pulling wide to win an aerial challenge, only to find himself having to go back to his full-back because there was no one else in an advanced area.
Louis Saha is still to score his first Sunderland goal, but the Frenchman has not made a Premier League start so can argue he has not been given a fair crack. What Fraizer Campbell and Connor Wickham are thinking, goodness only knows, but for all his inherent conservatism, it is surely time for O’Neill to try something different.
The same could be said in midfield, where Lee Cattermole’s latest knee injury threatens to rob Sunderland of their main combative presence for a couple of months.
Like their North-East rivals, Newcastle, the Black Cats are suffering injuries to key players at an especially inopportune time, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that O’Neill’s rigid trust in a small group of players is severely restricting his ability to plug any emerging gaps.
Positives to emerge from Tuesday? Danny Rose had another impressive game at left-back, and O’Neill must surely be thinking of at least testing the water with Tottenham when it comes to possible discussions over a permanent January move.
Further back, Mignolet shrugged off his uncharacteristic howler against West Brom to produce a composed and authoritative display.
“He’s a top goalkeeper and we’re fortunate to have a keeper like that at this football club,” said Bardsley.
“He’s pulled us out of trouble enough times this season and over the last couple of years, and he’s allowed to make a mistake every now and then. We’re fortunate to have a keeper like that on our hands.”
Mignolet displayed plenty of bravery to ignore the potentially debilitating effects of his weekend mistake. At the other end of the field, it is time for his team-mates to display similar mental strength.