Before Sunderland travelled to White Hart Lane on Monday, one commenter posed as absurd the fact that the two teams should both have former Tottenham players managing them but Spurs, undoubtedly the better of the two teams, should have the worse of the two. It was possibly a little harsh on Tim Sherwood, who has not done an awful job as Tottenham boss, but it was not inaccurate. Poyet had so nearly led Sunderland to glory in the Capital One Cup having overcome Chelsea and Manchester United en route to Wembley, but the team's capitulation since the final has sparked widespread and justified criticism of the Uruguayan.
Gus Poyet was condemned for steadfastly sticking with a 3-man defence for 3 vitally important recent matches in Sunderland's battle against relegation. It had worked - to an extent - in defeat at Liverpool, simply because the Black Cats avoided the kind of humbling that so many teams have been succumbed to at Anfield this season. But a defeat is a defeat. The loss at home to West Ham was equally unhelpful. So was the 5-1 defeat at Tottenham. Only 1 point from 5 league games since that Wembley date has left the club 7 points adrift of safety and, as Poyet put it, 'needing a miracle' to avoid a return to the Championship for the first time since 2007.
Sunderland face 4 of the current top 7 before the season's end having also taken on - and lost to - the other 3 sides in the top 7 in recent weeks. Once the next three games - against Everton, City and Chelsea - are out of the way (presuming, possibly fairly, that they won't get much from them), the Black Cats are left with 4 games to go and might be out of the running. Things certainly aren't looking good.
Their poor run began in defeat to Hull in early February, then continued at the Emirates and as they crashed out of both cup competitions. They picked up a solitary point in a goalless draw against a Crystal Palace side who at the time had the second worst away record in the Premier League. A meek 2-0 loss at Norwich signalled to Poyet a need for change.
With Marcus Alonso suspended, Andrea Dossena came in, and that may have encouraged Poyet into utilising wing-backs. Of course, to play in such a formation, you need the appropriate players at your disposal and with Phil Bardsley and Dossena, Sunderland are pretty well set to do so. In a 3-4-1-2 lineup, the underperforming Emanuele Giaccherini had a position readily made for him behind two strikers. The Italian was widely regarding as one of the signings of the summer during the last off-season, but shifted around in as many as 6 different positions - and only twice in his preferred trequartista role - he has struggled for form and has limited impact all campaign.
He was again ineffective, though. In fact, Sunderland's whole attack was ineffective. The defence looked like that of a minnow with their backs against the wall, but the attackers found no rhythm whatsoever. Connor Wickham had been recalled for that game but without a goal from 37 shots in 36 Premier League career appearances he still looks some way from complete enough to play at this level.
Defensively, they restricted Liverpool's usually fluid attack to very little with 27 tackles as they showed a doggedness required to survive at this level. But playing at Liverpool is one thing. Hosting West Ham is entirely another. Why, then, did Poyet stick with the same formation not only to start the next game, but also until the hour mark, by which time the game was lost? While the decision to change formation for a trip to Anfield looked like a proactive piece of tactical thinking on his part, he could not even spot the need for change at half time in the West Ham game.
By that stage, right wing-back Bardsley was looking Sunderland's greatest attacking threat. He had taken 1 of their meagre 6 shots against the team that concede the second-most shots in the Premier League (18 per game on average). The others were attempted by left wing-back Alonso, defensive midfielders Lee Cattermole (2) and Liam Bridcutt and centre-back Santiago Vergini. Only Cattermole hit the target. Adam Johnson's introduction and then the decision to switch to 4 at the back made a difference but it was too little, too late for Poyet.
At White Hart Lane on Monday night, after Cattermole put Sunderland ahead from a chance gifted to him by Vlad Chiriches, they imploded. They looked devoid of fight. They made only 17 tackles compared to the 27 they made at Anfield despite having exactly the same amount of possession (39%). Christian Eriksen was given huge praise for his display as he set up Spurs' first two goals and scored their third. He was, however, allowed far too much time in threatening positions and was barely tested by the Sunderland players. He was allowed to pick his crosses for his two assists, and little effort was made to block his 20-yard strike. Sunderland's meek attempts to prevent Spurs' final two goals smacked, more than ever before, of resignation.
These are bleak times for Sunderland, and are undoubtedly the most testing that Gus Poyet will have faced in his short managerial career. He did inspire the team to good run of results in which they overcame some of the Premier League's better sides earlier in the season, so a great escape shouldn't be absolutely written off just yet. Nonetheless, the odds are firmly stacked against Sunderland remaining in the Premier League for another season, with Poyet fast running out of ideas.
Can Sunderland pull off an incredible feat and stay up this season or are they doomed? Let us know in the comments below
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