If David Moyes needed the kind of performance to stop people talking about why he shouldn’t have been sacked for Monday’s controversy, this dismal 2-0 defeat at Leicester City will at least get more of them talking about why he hasn’t yet been sacked for Sunderland’s general season. Having long ago run out of anything like an idea, they are now running out of games, and it’s only looking more and more certain they will go down. Then again, that was probably the case before this game.
It is increasingly easy to understand why Claudio Ranieri was sacked, however, as Craig Shakespeare became the first British manager to win his first five games in the Premier League. They are more than safe from relegation, but now looking like they could be on the kind of surge that does yet allow them to something even more special in the Champions League. After Islam Slimani had opened the scoring, Jamie Vardy’s sensational clinching goal emphatically exemplified how Leicester are on such a wave of confidence, and why Sunderland are going down.
Moyes may have raised a lot of eyebrows this week with his comments, but it is something his team very rarely do through their play. It is why they had only scored in one of their last 10 games prior to this trip to the King Power Stadium.
Sunderland display the same dullness of approach that has characterised their season, and pretty much characterised the last few years of the manager’s career, most notoriously brought to a nadir in one notorious home draw with Fulham. His main form of attack is just to get it wide and cross it, although that has been slightly enhanced by the recent secondary option of “hope Jermain Defoe does something”.
He did attempt one speculative effort midway through the opening period, perhaps reflecting a frustration of what was pretty much the story of the first half, with Sunderland on average trying a cross every three minutes.
Against that, a Leicester team back on full confidence of late were content to sit deep and break, and often looked like they could do the occasional brilliant thing out of it. Riyad Mahrez sent a frisson around the ground with one glorious turn on the halfway, and the lively Demarai Gray brought a supreme save from Jordan Pickford just before half-time with a long-range curling strike.
His best save of the half came at the start of it, though, when the Sunderland goalkeeper touched over just when it seemed a Robert Huth header was about to drop under the bar.
The bar didn’t raise much in the second half. Sunderland generally continued doing exactly what they were doing, although there was at least one chance to do something different with their attacking when Seb Larsson stepped up for a direct free-kick about 25 yards from goal. He proceeded to display exactly why he has precisely no assists or no goals this season, by blazing it over in a manner more reminiscent of a rugby conversion. It’s difficult to blame Larsson for that kind of return, though, because this is not exactly a team designed to maximise attacking qualities.
Pickford did at least continue to show his fine goalkeeping qualities, as he turned away another strong header from Huth, this time from a corner.
He could do nothing for Leicester’s inevitable opening goal, though, that appropriately enough came from a cross. Substitute Marc Albrighton found enough space on the left, and expertly picked out fellow substitute Islam Slimani to head into the corner.
The response from the Leicester support was perhaps even more inevitable: “You’re getting slapped in the morning.”
Then came the kind of minute’s swing when you pretty much know it’s all going wrong, and that you’re definitely going down. On 78 minutes, a rare well-constructed Sunderland move saw the ball come out to Victor Anichebe, who had so much space in the box and so much of the goal to shoot. Kasper Schmeichel was at his mercy. The net was not. Anichebe hit the post, with Defoe then hitting the side-netting.
Encouraged, Sunderland tried to build again moments later, only to be properly deflated. Or, other phrases you could predictably pick to describe that feeling. A loose and lethargic ball out wide allowed Albrighton to again snap into his life, and he picked it up to then charge down the left. The winger slid it into Vardy at the edge of the box, and the resurgent striker immediately and impressively lashed it right into the top corner, as precise as it was powerful. The emphatic and sweeping nature of the goal was fittingly as devastating and sudden as the moment’s swing it came from.
It’s often said in football that wins make you bullet-proof, almost no matter what else is happening. So what is happening at Sunderland, other than relegation?