What pulled Sunderland to safety in the end?

Sunderland secured Premier League safety with one match to go courtesy of their 3-0 win over Everton in the final round of midweek games. They survived by hitting a good patch of form at the right time, winning three times in a five game unbeaten stretch that condemned both Newcastle United and Norwich City to the Championship next season.

But how did they hit form at just the right moment to pull away from danger yet again? I took a closer look at the overall relegation battle to see if there were any defining moments that separated them from the teams who ended up finishing in the drop zone.

Please note that this article was written when Sunderland’s safety was confirmed, after gameweek 37.

One thing that is immediately clear from looking at the past five games is the change in mentality from Sunderland.

Going into their crucial relegation match with Norwich, Sam Allardyce made it abundantly clear ahead of kick off that his priority was to keep a clean sheet rather than actively pursue a win. While this did not result in an overly negative approach, they provided themselves with a solid platform to build on going forward and were able to comfortably win 3-0 in the end.

This mentality served them well in the run in, with the team conceding just three times in their last five and keeping three clean sheets. This was a remarkable feat given that they had only kept four more throughout the entire season. Conversely, Norwich failed to keep a clean sheet during this time. Newcastle under Rafa Benitez also kept three clean sheets, but their attacking output was far worse, making it harder to turn them into wins:

Sunderland 1-01

It may be a fairly simplistic way of viewing things, but it is easy to argue that a conscious effort to tighten up and focus on defending was a major factor in Sunderland’s late rally.

It is all well and good having a drilled defence, but if you’re not effective in the final third it will still count for little. The one big edge Sunderland always had over Newcastle and Norwich was a natural goal scorer. Jermain Defoe bagged 15 league goals this season, a total bettered by only five players in the entire league.

Newcastle’s top goal scorer after 37 games was midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum with nine, but the Dutch international’s output dried up completely from January. Norwich fared even worse in the goals scored column with Dieumerci Mbokani leading the way for them with seven, though his tally was boosted by a brace in their futile 4-2 win over Watford last time out:

Sunderland 2

What made Defoe’s contribution even more significant was the fact that Sunderland only lost twice all season when he has found the net. His goals alone have directly earned Sunderland 15 points, a staggering amount in a relegation fight. It would be wrong to say that it was a one-man show on Wearside, however, as the platform provided by the defence gave Defoe the opportunity to be more decisive in matches.

As a team in general, Sunderland were more clinical in the final third, converting 46.5% of all Great Chances created. Newcastle found the net with 41.7% of theirs, while only Aston Villa converted with less regularity than Norwich’s 36.7%. One notable piece of data is that Sunderland were less reliant on Great Chances for their goals. Just 43.5% of all of them came from a Great Chance, whereas over half of Newcastle’s were scored from the same sort of opportunity. Norwich sat between the two on 46.2%, but it once again gives more weight to the importance of a forward who was able to find the net without having a really clear opportunity:

Sunderland 3-01

Another factor that made Sunderland’s run to freedom a little more notable is the strength of the opposition faced in the last five decisive games. They played three teams in the top half, taking five points in those matches; while against sides in the bottom half they secured two important wins. However, it could be argued that Stoke, Chelsea and Everton had much less to play for, with Sunderland’s greater desire and need for points being a crucial factor.

On paper they actually had a slightly tougher run of things however, with both Newcastle and Norwich facing just two teams from the top half. Norwich failed to beat either, while Newcastle could only manage a pair of draws, making Sunderland’s comeback win over Chelsea all the more significant.

How did they fare against each other at the foot of the table, though? In games that can be so important Sunderland managed to take 7 points from their matches with Newcastle and Norwich, whereas Norwich claimed 6 and Newcastle just 4.

The final and perhaps most important point that can be made in Sunderland’s favour was their decision to change manager, and to do so early enough in the season to have a lasting positive effect. Allardyce took over in October, with the club sitting without a win from their first eight games and at 19th in the table, below Aston Villa. He was given time and resources to amend the squad in January and came with a proven track record of having never been relegated before. His record of nine wins, eight draws and 12 defeats saw him steady the ship enough to climb out of the bottom three at the perfect moment, having spent most of the season in it.

On the other hand Norwich stuck loyally by Alex Neil, the man who guided them to promotion from the Championship in the previous campaign. Though admirable in the modern culture of sacking managers, Neil had never been in a relegation fight in his short managerial career and the step up to Premier League management has been tough, with the Scotsman overseeing 21 losses.

Of course Newcastle also made a managerial change and it too appeared to have had a very positive impact. However, it simply came too late in the season, with Benitez being given only 10 games to turn the fortunes of the club around and having no chance to amend his playing squad. As a manager he is normally associated with competing at the sharp end of the table, with this representing his first relegation battle in English football. In the end he took 10 points from 9 games and improved the team, but the decision to replace Steve McClaren so late in the campaign proved to be another costly one from Mike Ashley and Co.

Overall it was a culmination of factors that saw the relegation race end with a game to spare, but it cannot be argued that Sunderland came out on top in most key metrics and picked up points at vital stages in the season. As such it is completely understandable that they are the side who are preparing for another season in the Premier League. Their fans will surely hope that this time they have something other than a relegation battle to look forward to, though.

Alec Payne (@Payney3)

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