Chris Young’s big-match analysis: Plug that leak!

Jack Colback, Carlos Cuellar, Lee Cattermole.
Jack Colback, Carlos Cuellar, Lee Cattermole.

FOUR GAMES and three conceded in each of them.

Whatever the tactics, footballing philosophy or disciplinary policy of the next Sunderland head coach, it is that defensive statistic which is screaming out.

Whether it be Kevin Ball, Gus Poyet or Rene Meulensteen who succeeds Paolo Di Canio, Sunderland must find some resolve at the back if they are to move out of the Premier League’s doldrums.

There are mitigating circumstances for Keiren Westwood picking the ball out of his net on 12 occasions in the last four Premier League outings.

In each game, Sunderland have conceded a third in the dying embers as they have been chasing a route back into the encounter.

A lack of continuity in selection has provided a conveyor belt of defensive combinations, who have struggled to discover any harmony.

And most frustratingly, Liverpool’s opener yesterday owed everything to Howard Webb’s short-sightedness. That’s not an uncommon occurrence when it has come to the referee’s performances in Sunderland games.

But neither did the Black Cats help themselves at the back.

Daniel Sturridge’s Maradona moment was entirely illegal, but it was the fourth time Sunderland have conceded from a set piece this season.

That is no fluke.

Westwood was glued to his line, John O’Shea was left to mark both the England striker and Kolo Toure, while Seb Larsson was lethargically propping himself up against the post, rather than anticipating any effort on goal.

Liverpool’s second goal was not much prettier viewing, albeit it was a wonderful, raking, crossfield pass from Steven Gerrard which began the move.

Carlos Cuellar, making his first Premier League start of the campaign, was exposed too easily by the hot-heeled Sturridge to enable Luis Suarez to continue his scoring habits against Sunderland – the Uruguayan now has seven in six against the Black Cats.

Ball’s decision to turn to Cuellar’s experience has injected greater communication and organisation into the back-line, but the Spaniard does not have the pace of his central defensive rivals, Modibo Diakite and Valentin Roberge.

Sunderland looked vulnerable on the counter-attack because of it.

Conceding so frequently has affected Westwood too.

The Republic of Ireland international was a less nervy specimen than former sparring partner Simon Mignolet, with the latter not convincing in his contribution for Emanuele Giaccherini’s goal, flapping at a handful of crosses and benefiting from Webb’s vision again when he picked up what looked to be a Toure back-pass.

By contrast, Westwood made a couple of splendid second-half saves to deny Victor Moses and then Toure with fizzing efforts from distance.

But there remain question marks over Westwood’s willingness to come for crosses, particularly as Sunderland have been breached four times from set pieces this season.

That comes with confidence and the warm embrace of a clean sheet.

Without halting the run of conceding soft goals, Sunderland’s hopes of moving off the foot of the table don’t stand a prayer.

At least though yesterday, there seemed to be a collective determination to prevent Liverpool having an easy ride.

Sunderland followed the lead of Southampton – victors at Anfield eight days earlier – by pressing Liverpool high up the pitch and at every opportunity.

It wasn’t until the final 20 minutes – when they tired badly – when Sunderland were unable to maintain the pressing game and their pressure on the Liverpool goal subsided because of it.

Lee Cattermole carried on from his display in the midweek Capital One Cup by setting the tone before tiring in the finale.

Having the ex-skipper back in the fold alongside the elegance and composure Ki Sung-Yeung has shown what Sunderland were so desperately missing in the season’s early throes.

Moving Seb Larsson inside to a central role, with Giaccherini tucking inside off the left, also helped with Sunderland’s solidity.

The wide open 4-2-4 of Di Canio was bold, but never conducive to those at Sunderland’s disposal.

The extra man in midfield helped Ball’s side to match the miles of Liverpool’s central trio and they also played some elegant, crisp, two-touch passing to accompany it.

For the opening 25 minutes of each half, Sunderland played with a real purpose and a determination and the crowd responded.

Ball described it afterwards as “putting in a shift” and that is the big attribute which the caretaker boss has injected back into these players.

They look hungry and ready to scrap their way off the bottom.

Playing with a lone striker in Jozy Altidore didn’t hinder Sunderland severely either.

Altidore’s team-mates gave the American international a helping hand by playing the ball into his feet, at pace, so he could a make a fist of holding it up.

There were times when Sunderland looked toothless in the final third – usually through a lack of bodies – but their tally of 23 efforts on goal was still their highest since the opening month of Martin O’Neill’s reign.

Positives are no good to Sunderland at the moment though.

In each game this season, Sunderland could have got something for their efforts if they had taken their chances or not shot themselves in the foot at the other end.

Points are the only currency and just because the Wearsiders performed encouragingly against Liverpool – when the pressure drops – it doesn’t necessarily equate that they will match those standards in a game they need to win.

The worry is that when those encounters come along, Sunderland’s confidence will have waned further by being cast adrift at the bottom.

Ball, Poyet, or whoever, must keep Sunderland believing that they are on the right lines and ensure the sense of freedom following Di Canio’s dismissal is not a brief flirtation.

But first of all, they must dry up the saliva coating the lips of opposition strikers.

Twitter @youngsunecho