The appointment of Big Sam
Unlike Newcastle, Sunderland replaced their manager with enough time for him to make a significant impact. They recruited a manager who has been in relegation battles before and never been relegated. Sam Allardyce’s first game in charge of Sunderland was in October and when he took over, they have played eight games, won none, drawn three and lost five. Fast forward 29 games and the Black Cats have won nine, drawn eleven and lost seventeen. The best win has to be their 3-0 victory over Everton on Wednesday because it secured their Premier League status for a 10th successive season and relegated Norwich and local rivals Newcastle in the process. Big Sam will be feeling particularly smug because he was sacked as Newcastle manager in 2008, they were 11th when he left but got relegated that season, and now he has sent them back to the Championship yet again.
There are no two ways about it, Jermain Defoe is the reason that Sunderland are still in the Premier League. If Norwich or Newcastle had a proven goalscorer like Defoe, perhaps things would have been different for them. He has been fantastic this season, scoring goals consistently and when his team needs them most. The 18 goals in all competitions that he has scored this season are 13 more than any other Sunderland player. His influence has been massive. Last Saturday is a prime example of this. Sunderland were 2-1 down to Chelsea at half-time. That was until Borini made it 2-2 in the 67th minute and Defoe scored the winner just three minutes later. At the moment, he is only one goal away from moving into the top 10 all-time Premier League scorers.
When aren’t Sunderland completing a “Great Escape”? They’ve been here before. Sunderland have been embroiled in a relegation battle for several seasons and they always manage to worm their way out of it. Just like some teams are experts at winning the league, Sunderland are experts at surviving relegation. This experience makes all the difference when the relegation battle begins, as Norwich and Newcastle have found out.
Team spirit and determination
On the 1st of January 2016, Sunderland had 12 points and were in the relegation zone. Now they have 38 and will be in the Premier League next season. Aston Villa had 8 points on the first of January 2016 and were 20th. They have 17 points now and are still rock bottom. If Sunderland hadn’t rallied together and found the determination to escape relegation, they could so easily have been going down with Villa. This season Sunderland have spent 237 days in the drop zone which is more than Aston Villa but they have not been relegated. Something clicked for Sam Allardyce’s side and since the 1st of January, they have only lost five games compared to Aston Villa who have lost 13 in the same period. The Black Cats have taken 11 points from their last 15 to avoid the drop. When a team works together and fights for each other, there can only be a positive outcome. Just look at Leicester!
As he arrived in October, Big Sam has only had the winter transfer window to improve his side. The signings that he did make, Wahbi Khazri, Jan Kirchhoff and Lamine Kone have all contributed to Sunderland’s survival. Khazri has scored twice and Kone scored the first brace of his 10-year senior career on Wednesday when he scored twice against Everton. Kirchoff had a debut to forget against Tottenham in January but has improved since and made 15 appearances. His only substitute appearance was on his debut. Big Sam made shrewd signings and they have paid off. Sometimes less is more.