So Long, Sunderland?
Through the first 10 games in this current English Premier League season, the title race is as wide-open as it’s been in recent memory. Three points separate first through fifth, and with the exception of middling Manchester United, it’s the traditional English elite leading the pack. (Sorry, Red Devils fans, but 4-3-3 is an attack-minded tactical formation, not the record of a club with title ambitions.)
But with all due respect to the top of the table, the other end of the EPL spectrum looks to be an even more fascinating follow for those of us in the States, especially with America’s Team – aka, Bob Bradley’s Swansea – poised for a year-long fight for survival.
The Welsh club sits 19th, but even though Swans have only earned a result in three of their first ten matches this season, they look like a well-oiled machine compared to the only side in the league they loom over in the standings: the grey cloud of sadness that is Sunderland AFC.
The club has been a target for pundits this season, including some pointed words from Robbie Earle of NBS Sports.
The Premier League Live crew discusses the state of Sunderland under manager David Moyes. | #PLonNBC https://t.co/zFdSsDfjov
— NBC Sports Soccer (@NBCSportsSoccer) October 29, 2016
In the midst of such a miserable start, are the Black Cats destined for relegation, or is there hope for survival? Let's check it out.
Slowest of Starts
Even if you’re relatively new to the EPL scene, you likely have the measure of Sunderland by now, as this year marks their 10th consecutive season in the top flight.
True, they’ve seldom had it easy over the last decade, finishing in the top half of the table just once (10th in 2010-11) and only managing to hit the 40-point mark three times, yet they’ve always found a way to keep their heads up, a feat their greatest rivals Newcastle have not been able to equal. (Astoundingly, the Toon – a much bigger, richer club in every respect – have been relegated twice in the past decade, a fact in which even the most despairing Sunderland fan can take solace.)
From the Paulo DiCanio Miracle of 2013, the Gus Poyet Lazarus Act of 2014 and the Big Sam Revival of this past spring, the Wearsiders have toed the line of relegation over and over and lived to tell the tale, but many believe – and recent results would tend to support the opinion – that this may be the year the Black Cats’ survival streak finally end.
A quick glance at the table confirms as much, as Sunderland have accrued a meager two points so far, the only winless team left in the top flight of English football.
By the Numbers
Since the advent of the new Premier League in 1992-93, no club has started the first 10 games of an EPL season with so little return. And while it’s true that six of Sunderland’s eight losses have been by just one goal, and they have played six teams in the top half of the league, deeper inspection will provide more damning evidence.
As you’d expect of a team with an 0-8-2 record, they’ve been dismal in most major statistical categories – last in the league in goals scored, 19th in goals conceded, 18th in possession, 18th in shots, 18th in pass success percentage, and the list goes on.
Individually, the picture isn’t much brighter.
Only one Sunderland player -- newly signed Cameroon defender Papy Djilobodji -- has cracked WhoScored.com’s Top 100 player ratings, and he comes in at No. 100. The emergence of 22-year-old keeper Jordan Pickford and the steady front play from former Toronto FC hitman Jermaine Defoe have been the lone positives in a fairly abject display across the board. In the absence of the injured Vito Mannone, Pickford is second only to Tom Heaton in saves this season (though truth be told, that’s more of a knock on Sunderland’s defense than anything), while Defoe’s five league goals put him tied for fifth in the scoring race.
But their efforts haven’t been enough to keep the Wearsiders’ heads above water, nor has it put them in the win column until this point.
They'll Need to Buck the Odds
Yet is the poor start for David Moyes and Co. a harbinger of unavoidable relegation?
Let’s see what recent history tells us.
Last year at this time, Aston Villa was the league’s bottom team after earning just four points out of a possible 30. The Villains were well on their way to one of the worst top flight seasons in recent memory, eventually finishing with a paltry 17 points, or exactly half the amount of 19th-place Norwich.
Two seasons ago, it was Burnley mired at the basement of the EPL after 10 games. At this point, the Clarets had earned four draws but had no victories to their credit in their first season up since enduring relegation in 2010, and their trend of drawing too many games would ultimately see them drop back down the Championship, five points adrift in 19th.
In 2013-14, Crystal Palace brought up the rear after 10 games on just three points, having lost a staggering 90% of their matches, many of which were in dismal fashion. But unlike the early-season bottom teams in the years to follow, the Eagles staged an improbable turnaround, winning 12 of their final 28 games to charge up the table and finish in 11th place. (They would also essentially end Liverpool’s title hopes with a 3-3 draw at Selhurst Park on the penultimate week of the season, endearing them to Manchester City fans and becoming forever linked with what could’ve been for Brendan Rodgers.)
The End for David Moyes?
So, what happened with Palace that season that turned sure relegation despair to a mid-table finish? Chairman Steve Parish decided to sack Ian Holloway after eight games and bring in Tony “Bootstraps” Pulis, who promptly got the Eagles to bear down and play defense, ultimately preserving the veteran manager’s streak of having never tasted relegation.
While David Moyes was recently given a vote of confidence by Sunderland’s ownership group, the words of chairmen these days hold as much water as a colander, so let’s not read much into that.
Assuming the plug does get pulled on the former Everton and Man United man, who would the Black Cats turn to?
As you’re aware, the aforementioned Pulis is not available, having taken on a similar reclamation project last season at West Brom, meaning the man best-suited for the job might just be the same barrel-chested, pie-eating, slightly-dodgy gent who got Sunderland out of the relegation fires last spring.
Bear in mind that we’re only a year removed from virtually the same narrative that’s playing out this year. After no wins in the team’s first eight games of 2015-16, then-manager Dick Advocaat left the club, famously saying that Sunderland “weren’t good enough” to stay up.
In came Sam Allardyce, who made changes in January and drug the Black Cats to safety in the most improbable job interview in the history of the English National Team -- followed by one of its more disgraceful exits after only 67 days on the job.
But whether the job of keeping Sunderland up remains with Moyes, shifts back to Big Sam or is tasked with someone else, the next month will be crucial to survival, as Sunderland play four of their next five league games against clubs 10th or worse, including two versus fellow bottom dwellers Hull and Swansea.
If results don’t go their way over that that stretch, it’s hard to imagine EPL football continuing on Wearside next season.
After all, this is Year 10 of Sunderland’s current run in the top flight. Perhaps the Black Cats’ nine lives are already up.