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Nolan's late equaliser makes it hard to assess Sunderland's start
GLASS half full or glass half empty? Four games into Sunderland's season, and it's possible to interpret the club's position in distinctly different ways.
If you're adopting a positive stance, you can point out that Martin O'Neill's side remain unbeaten despite having played three of their first four games away, have scored first in each of their last three matches and came within seconds of claiming all three points at West Ham at the weekend.
If you're viewing things more negatively though, you can highlight the fact they've conceded the lead on four separate occasions, boast only one Premier League goalscorer and have not claimed a league success since March.
In fact, today marks the six-month anniversary of their last victory, a 3-1 home win over QPR. The barren spell extends to 12 matches, almost a third of a season, and while O'Neill is right to challenge its relevance given that it spans two campaigns, it increasingly looks like a psychological barrier that needs to be breached.
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Sunderland have played well in patches this season, and remain a work in progress following the arrival of some high-profile summer signings, two of which – Adam Johnson and Carlos Cuellar – were unavailable at the weekend. But they need a win, preferably in Saturday's home game with struggling Wigan Athletic.
“As time goes on, if we don't gain victories it becomes a problem,” said O'Neill, who confirmed Fraizer Campbell had suffered a suspected broken foot in the closing stages at Upton Park. “We just have to start winning if we can. We got close on Saturday and we’ll try again this week.
“If we had won (at West Ham) – big if – with three games away from home and one at home it would have been a really good start to the season. Now, we just have to try and win a game. I think the side’s capable of doing so.”
The two major positives to emerge from the trip to east London were the continued good form of Steven Fletcher, who controlled Seb Larsson's tenth-minute cross on his chest before drilling home his fourth goal in the last three matches, and a resolute defensive display that repelled a series of West Ham attacks, particularly in the second half.
Fletcher has been a revelation since leaving Wolves last month, and his £12m price tag looks more and more like a bargain with every passing game.
“It's too early to make the assumption (that it was money well spent),” said O'Neill. “But I think he has helped immensely, not just in terms of the goals – that's been great, so far he's the only one to score – but also with the extra part of his game which we didn't really have last season. I think he's a real quality centre-forward and he'll prove great value for money.”
At the other end, Titus Bramble and John O'Shea were equally impressive, winning a succession of towering headers as West Ham's midfielders threw balls into the box aiming for first Carlton Cole and then substitute Modibo Maiga.
Bramble was brave and decisive throughout, and with Simon Mignolet also in top form – the goalkeeper made an excellent first-half save to claw away Kevin Nolan 's swivelled effort – it looked as though Sunderland would hold on for a valuable success.
They might have been out of sight had they made the most of the handful of counter-attacking opportunities that came their way, but their attacking decision-making was poor and it is concerning that, even at this early stage of the season, Fletcher looks like their sole goalscoring threat.
Stephane Sessegnon extended his poor start to the campaign with another ineffectual display, while James McClean was the chief culprit when it came to spurning decent openings on the break.
He blazed wide in the first half when Sessegnon and Jack Colback were both well placed and ran down a blind alley in the second when team-mates were again well placed in the middle.
In fairness to the Northern Irishman, he did deliver Sunderland's best cross of the game with 14 minutes left, but substitute David Vaughan somehow missed the ball completely as he attempted a diving header when a simple shot would have sufficed.
“I thought on the break – and I accept they were on the break – we had some really decent chances to put the game beyond them, but were unable to take them through a bit of sloppy play,” said O'Neill.
As a result, the Black Cats only enjoyed a one-goal lead as the game entered stoppage time, and West Ham's dominance in terms of both territory and possession eventually told.
Matt Jarvis kept the ball alive from the byline, and after Maiga helped it on with a header, Nolan spun around to slot home.
“We knew we were going to be put under that sort of pressure, and the disappointing thing was that for most it, we dealt with it manfully and pretty well,” said O'Neill. “To concede as we did was just very disappointing.”