Is it time for Sunderland fans to panic?

Christopher Lee

Okay, so Sunderland isn't that great of a team. Martin O'Neill is probably too conservative of a manager. They need a couple of players. But they shouldn't be this bad, right?

Sunderland, who were supposed to be a mid-table team at worst and a possible top-half competitor this season, are very bad. They are currently involved in a relegation battle, and it doesn't look like they'll be able to climb out of the bottom 5-6 places anytime soon, because they haven't looked terribly competent against teams other than fellow relegation battlers since September.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. They have everything that mid-budget team with mid-table aspirations is supposed to have. They have a manager in Martin O'Neill who guided Aston Villa to European appearances, won trophies with Celtic, and had Leicester City punching above their weight for five years. They have veteran players with big-club experience who weren't quite good enough for the Manchester Uniteds of the world, proven mid-table scrappers, impressive foreign players who the big boys overlooked, and some solid up-and-coming youngsters.

They are more or less the formulaic mid-table side with a shot at Europa League. For a team of that reputation, with that kind of budget, they have seemingly done everything correctly. They've followed the Everton, Big Sam's Bolton, and *gasp* Newcastle formula perfectly. And yet, they sit in 16th place, just one point off the drop, with a negative-six goal differential.

Because they followed the formula perfectly, they were expected to finish just above the middle of the table. Here's what Ryan Rosenblatt had to say in his preseason Sunderland preview.

O'Neill may not thrill anyone, but his teams get results and this Black Cats team should get enough results to be right there in the middle of the table. That is plenty good at Sunderland.

Last Year: 13th, 11 W, 12 D, 15 L

This Year: 9th

You would have been hard-pressed to find anyone who disagreed with this back in August, and after the Black Cats held Arsenal to a 0-0 draw on the first day of the season, this prediction looked like a good one. Instead, Sunderland are bad. Very bad.

And not only that, but they always look like crap. It's not like O'Neill's teams have ever been terribly entertaining, but at least there was something to enjoy about his Villa sides, and occasionally about Sunderland games last season, when he guided them from a relegation scrap to a very comfortable mid-table finish. This year, they're mind-numbingly dull, and their match against Stoke City was predictably one of the worst matches in Premier League history, which is certainly saying something considering that Stoke have been involved in a lot of eye-gaugers. Steven Fletcher is the only thing saving them from being the most unwatchable team in the league.

Fletcher, somehow, looks like the Premier League's signing of the season despite playing for a bad team and costing twice as much as anyone would have paid for him a year ago. He currently has as many league goals as Sunderland's next three top scorers combined, and he's done it without much in the way of quality service. Adam Johnson, Stephane Sessegnon and Sebastian Larsson should be among the top creators in the Premier League's mid-table spectrum, but they simply haven't gotten it done thus far.

Hopefully, for the sake of Sunderland fans and those who just like their football to make sense, Sunderland's 3-0 win over Reading on December 11 was a sign of things to come, and their loss against Manchester United simply happened because United are a very good team. But United did not look very good at all on Saturday, and still managed to go three goals ahead without much of a problem.

The Black Cats go away to St. Mary's on the weekend before hosting Manchester City on Boxing Day. Their holiday schedule also features a tough test against Tottenham and a trip to Anfield. By the time their January 12 home match against West Ham rolls around, they'll either be obviously out of their slump (having grabbed results in their toughest fixtures of the year) or likely in the drop zone.

There's good news for Sunderland, however. Even if they leave the holiday schedule in the drop zone, they have a great opportunity to haul themselves out of their situation. From January 12 up until Sunderland's February 9 match against Arsenal, they fave four very winnable contests against the Hammers, Swansea, Wigan and Reading. That will be the most important stretch of the season for Sunderland, and more likely than not, a four-game stretch that shows everyone exactly what kind of team they are.

It's not time for Sunderland to panic yet, but it is time to circle the date at which panicing will become acceptable.

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