Ah, the stress-free life of a Sunderland head coach. The role is filled with heroes and villains, victories and defeats that leave us on edge, constantly anticipating the next twist. It’s a challenging job, even for someone like Tony Mowbray, a seasoned veteran who has already proven himself. The current 2023/2024 campaign is still in its early stages, leaving room for us to recover from our slump and stay in contention for the top six. However, recent results have taken a toll on our momentum, leading to doubts and an exaggerated response in some circles.
The last three games have been disappointing in their own ways. The Middlesbrough match was harsh after Dan Neil’s red card, our performance against Stoke City was simply unacceptable, and although we showed some pride by closely contesting with Leicester City, there’s no denying that we’re stuck in a rut. Mowbray’s credit has diminished compared to a few weeks ago. It may seem unfair to put pressure on him at this stage, with the team only three points behind third place. However, the nature of this game and the demands of the Sunderland fans make it easy for the line between being a hero and being under scrutiny to blur.
After our impressive victory against Southampton in late August, everyone was ecstatic and Mowbray was riding high. But now, after three straight defeats and only one goal scored, questions are being asked and the mood isn’t exactly optimistic. I want to make it clear that I have a great deal of respect for Mowbray. He has fostered an impressive team spirit among our young squad and overseen individual development. When we’re at our best, we play exceptional football with a fearless approach. However, some of his recent decisions, like persisting with an out-of-form Mason Burstow, giving Hemir a two-minute cameo against Leicester, and choosing to not play a striker and substituting an unfit Bradley Dack against a physical Stoke side, have not been well received.
Furthermore, our defense still has weaknesses, and we rely too heavily on Jack Clarke for goals. The departures of Ross Stewart and Danny Batth have been subjects of debate, with questions raised about whether it was right or wrong to let them go. Stewart’s contractual situation and his lack of playing time at Norwich suggest that keeping him might not have been feasible. The bigger issue, highlighted in recent weeks, is that under Mowbray, we tend to be a team of extremes. Our victories are thrilling, while our losses are devastating. We rarely win in a low-key manner and don’t lose by narrow margins. This style of play may be entertaining, but it’s not the foundation of championship-winning teams.
Currently, Mowbray finds himself in a position similar to last season when we suffered consecutive defeats against Rotherham and Coventry. He’s on the defensive, lacking ideas, and simply trying to weather this rough patch. We need something to change quickly, and now is not the time for lighthearted jokes. A victory against Norwich would be significant, especially if it follows a gutsy, positive performance like the one we saw against Leicester. Such a win would alleviate the pressure on Mowbray.
Unfortunately, our eyes are being drawn to France, where Francesco Farioli, the talented Italian coach who was linked with us in the summer, is doing an excellent job at Nice. Are we looking at Farioli and thinking about what could’ve been if we had been more ruthless? Letting go of Mowbray’s services would have been harsh, but it would’ve been intriguing as well.
However, making a change during the summer doesn’t guarantee that Farioli would’ve been a perfect fit. Hypothetically, would the players have responded to him instantly? Would he have trusted them as much as Mowbray does? These are questions worth considering. The process of hiring head coaches is more structured now, but success from one location doesn’t always carry over to another. Conversely, an underwhelming appointment can turn out to be a shrewd move, as our experience in the 2022/2023 season showed. Roberto de Zerbi’s exceptional work at Brighton is setting a template for other clubs to follow, but at this stage, with a young squad in need of guidance and a head coach who has faith in their abilities, I believe Mowbray’s position should remain secure.
In some ways, last season’s unexpected sixth-place finish has become a burden for the club. After defying the odds and reaching the playoffs, expectations for the 2023/2024 season have risen. Mowbray is now trying to progress further with a revamped team and players at various stages of development. This isn’t necessarily a problem as long as we accept that there will be obstacles along the way. Just as Mowbray guided the team through rough patches last season, he will undoubtedly be determined to do the same now.
Saturday’s game is crucial, but our players have the ability to respond and get back to winning ways. At the very least, they owe that to Mowbray.
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