Chris Young’s big-match analysis: Sunderland torched by old flame

Paulo Di Canio gestures at the Sunderland fans after the final whistle.
Paulo Di Canio gestures at the Sunderland fans after the final whistle.
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AT THE start of the summer of 2011, Steve Bruce targeted three out-of-contract players to bolster Sunderland’s ranks – Keiren Westwood, Seb Larsson and Morgan Amalfitano.

The latter was seen as the ideal creative midfield foil for Lee Cattermole, yet was the one Bruce missed out on as the then Lorient man opted to join Marseille.

In truth, Amalfitano – man of the match in West Brom’s 3-0 win over Sunderland on Saturday – was the old flame who torched Paolo Di Canio’s dream of a revolution.

Jack Colback never looked comfortable containing Amalfitano down West Brom’s right flank and the 28-year-old responded with two assists via unconvincing goalkeeping from Keiren Westwood, plus a scorching drive which ensured a third successive game where Sunderland’s defence has been breached on three occasions.

But Amalfitano wasn’t the headline grabbing ghost of Christmas past.

That honour belonged to the softly-spoken man from Benin, who predictably responded to Di Canio’s very public criticism with the perfect retort.

For 20 minutes, Stephane Sessegnon had looked like the player hauled off at half-time in his final Sunderland appearance at Southampton; short on confidence and a shadow of the mercurial figure who prompted so much salivating in the 2011/12 campaign.

He was cheaply robbed of possession by a sandwiched tackle from Colback and Ki Sung-Yeung and then fouled Adam Johnson after a horribly loose first touch.

But then came the cushioned, slightly-scuffed half-volley into the corner of Westwood’s net after Sunderland – again – failed to deal with a routine cross.

Despite the mixed emotions which followed in the most muted of goal celebrations, Sessegnon suddenly had a taste for it.

For the remaining 25 minutes of a first half when Sunderland looked shell-shocked and seemed incapable of tracking the simplest of runs from midfield, the 29-year-old was their chief tormentor.

It was a familiar sight. All of West Brom’s approach work went through Sessegnon and Sunderland’s panic-stricken players used any means to halt him – Colback and Ki both taking one for the team by entering Phil Dowd’s notebook by chopping down the diminutive forward.

Sessegnon was more subdued after the break, albeit he did brilliantly turn Modibo Diakite with terrifying ease from a throw-in, before slashing a half-volley over the bar.

But Sessegnon’s contribution again prompts the debate over whether Sunderland were right to sell him on deadline day, or more pertinently, if they replaced him adequately.

Doubtless, £6million was very good money considering Sessegnon’s age and the drastic inconsistency in his form over the last 18 months.

And there was substance to Di Canio’s argument that he had perhaps gone stale and needed a fresh environment to rediscover his form.

But even on his most anonymous days, Sessegnon would worry defenders and consume their attention.

Can the same be said of those in Sunderland’s attacking ranks so far this season?

For far too much of Saturday’s game, the answer was a resounding “no”.

In mitigation, the service into the frontmen was pathetically timid, until the second-half chances for Jozy Altidore and Steven Fletcher.

Neither Adam Johnson nor Emanuele Giaccherini were able to create, and it hardly said a lot for the latter that Di Canio hauled off at the interval his big hope among the summer’s incomings.

Even Ki, who had been at the heart of a promising opening 20 minutes for the Black Cats, eventually fell into the trap of his team-mates by surrendering possession cheaply or attempting Hollywood crossfield passes.

But neither did the strikers help themselves by their inability to cause the most measly palpitation in the Baggies back-line.

The decision to start with Altidore on the bench initially looked to be an enforced one due to injury, before the American’s publicist confirmed on Saturday night that it was tactical and the 23-year-old had been fully fit.

Di Canio’s move to replace Altidore with Fabio Borini baffled and Sunderland’s attack was far too lightweight as a result.

Borini is always on the move and intelligently looked to prey on the shoulder of the last man, in the hope of receiving a well-weighted ball over the top.

But he made a minimal impact, although he will need to make one now that Steven Fletcher faces the familiar sight of the treatment table.

One player cannot solve Sunderland’s ills though.

Not even Lee Cattermole – roared onto the pitch by the travelling contingent inside The Hawthorns – will suddenly make this team click. The problems are too engrained and some stretch back years before Di Canio’s reign.

Cattermole will add some much-needed leadership and also a vocal presence that is desperately lacking. At one point in the second half, a blue and white shirt chased Charis Mavrias down from 10 yards behind him, without the Greek ever hearing a peep from a team-mate.

But the issue which causes concern among all others is the mental one.

After Liam Ridgewell had essentially put the game to bed with West Brom’s second, the body language of Sunderland’s players was awful.

They looked like men already resigned to their fate.

Even after the final whistle, Ondrej Celustka collapsed to the turf in despair while Westwood looked inconsolable.

Remember, this is just the fifth league game of the season, not the FA Cup final.

The most damning sight of all was Di Canio as subdued on the touchline as he has ever been during his Sunderland tenure.

His gestures towards the travelling hordes afterwards looked as if he was almost seeking a vote of confidence from them.

He didn’t get one from them.

More importantly, he didn’t get one from Ellis Short.

Twitter @youngsunecho