Sunderland suffering lack of creativity
It's a misnomer of football that playing more strikers will equate to more goals. That's because it's often the creativity required to get into a position to score which is overlooked in such a theory. It was that same dash of imagination that Sunderland missed once again as they recorded their ninth draw of the season.
While many on Wearside may have hoped the visit of Fulham would provide the same kickstart the reverse fixture had in November, it wasn't to be. Starting the game in the 4-4-2 formation that fans have clamoured for since Danny Graham's January arrival, all too often the creative burden was placed on the mercurial pair of Stephane Sessegnon and Adam Johnson. While the latter would set-up the former for Sunderland's equaliser, it remains the void left by their team-mates that is the biggest issue on Wearside at present.
Defender Phil Bardsley believes it's because the club doesn't take enough risks, something that Sunderland's deep line may give credence too. Former hero Kevin Phillips attributes it to a lack of urgency in play. In reality, both claims are equally valid and form a multi-faceted explanation of Sunderland's creative shortcomings. That's despite the best attempts of both Martin O'Neill and the crowd to usher the ball forward.
Perhaps Sunderland will be able to learn from their opponents today. Fulham are equally as slow in central defence, yet to negate this issue they remain narrow and compact in an attempt to make interchanges quicker. Like Sunderland their pace is limited to just a few, who are consequently targeted with leading any potential counter attacks - their second, converted by Sascha Riether proving how effective a strategy it can be.
Yet for Fulham, there is surprisingly a similar undercurrent of creative issues. With Dimitar Berbatov placed so delicately upon a pedestal of excellence, their creative hopes at the Stadium of Light rested on the mercurial frontman's shoulders. Despite the early promise suggested by his goal after 15 minutes, it was in fact the highlight of his afternoon as he ambled round the Stadium of Light pitch instructing his team-mates on how they could improve.
Jol is unlikely to be worried by criticism of his Bulgarian star however. "What do you want?" the Dutchman told the Guardian recently. "A player without quality who works hard? Or a quality player who hopefully works hard?"
On the evidence of today it appears he prefers the latter, but it comes at a price. Fulham are the second lowest scorers in the top half of the league - a stat made worse by the fact they also hold the worst defence. Having won just twice in 2013, their poor form is something that needs to be redressed given how close they were to three points.
Meanwhile, for the second week running, Martin O'Neill laid his ire at the door of the referee. "It was certainly an incident packed game." he said after the match. "I thought we could and should have won the game. It looked a pretty clear cut penalty from Senderos handling the ball, but the referee has chosen not to give it."
Keen to distance himself from a 'rant', penalties have been a long running bone of contention for the Black Cats. Prior to the one they received at Wigan in January, Sunderland had gone 34 games without a spot kick. They were also cruelly denied last week against West Brom, leading O'Neill to talk about pre-season directives and other such reference points to explain why his side were hard done by.
Skirting the finite line of success and failure, it was by those same margins that Sunderland stayed in the game. A fantastic save by Simon Mignolet mid-way through the second half not only stopped Fulham extending their lead, but was also the pre-cursor to a counter attack that was finished by Stephane Sessegnon for the equaliser.
An important figure at the Stadium of Light, Sessegnon's lack of end product is oft ignored by a fan-base that is clearly taken with him. "I've said half seriously and half jokingly that if Stephane could [show] a real end product to his game in terms of goals or chances created for other people, he would be one heck of a player," his manager said earlier this week.
Back above Newcastle and into 14th, Sunderland seem unlikely candidates to be sucked into the end of season relegation fight. Lacking the inventiveness and bit of magic that was present when O'Neill first joined, though, the Black Cats manager will need to find it again, in the same way club legend Bob Stokoe claimed he did all those years ago.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Stephane Sessegnon - On a day when individual quality was at a low, the former PSG forward showed signs that he's returning to the form that saw him named player of the year last season. Skipping past Fulham's left side several times, his goal was the reward for some exciting play that helped keep fans onside.
SUNDERLAND VERDICT: The lack of penetration from central midfield is a worrying issue. Continuing to play Sebastian Larsson in the middle, O'Neill could do with a deep-lying playmaker to dictate the game in the way Fulham use Greek midfielder Georgios Karagounis. Also missing Danny Rose, the lack of attacking impetus from the full-back position needs addressing during the summer transfer window.
FULHAM VERDICT: A mediocre performance from the visitors, they could arguably have come away with a victory had Senderos not been so naive with the penalty. The fact their pace is all down the right side allows for rapid counter attacks but also leaves them somewhat unbalanced as a side. If Jol could add dynamism to his central midfield, Fulham would look strong contenders to cement a European place.