Even as Jermain Defoe scored his second goal, you could sense the nerves throughout the stadium. Sunderland, one of two teams in the Premier League still without a win, had taken a two-goal lead. At home. To Crystal Palace. With 30 minutes remaining. A smile almost broke across David Moyes’ face.
Almost. Within a minute of Defoe’s fortuitous second came a moment of misfortune, as Joe Ledley’s shot found a way past the ever-suffering Jordan Pickford via a deflection. The Stadium of Light had seen this script before.
Another 15 minutes passed, and their two-goal lead had evaporated quicker than every managerial tenure on Wearside over the past six years. Once James McArthur levelled the scores, the fear that had engulfed the Sunderland fans turned to anger.
Christian Benteke’s last-minute winner was the home side’s pièce de résistance, with one of the most feared headers of a ball in England afforded a nine-yard run and a free route to goal from a free-kick. Palace recorded only their fifth league win of the calendar year; Sunderland had wasted the opportunity to secure a first league win since beating Chelsea in May.
They also spurned the chance to hand Moyes something he has not achieved since April 5, 2014: a victory in the Premier League. The Scot may boast of his longevity and record in England’s top flight, but so much has changed during his absence. Football has moved on; has Moyes?
Early signs suggest not. His post-match comments read exactly as they did after each individual failure at Manchester United. “I actually thought we were fortunate to be two goals up”, “we need our players to assume a level of responsibility”, “it’s not all down to me and my staff”. There was no doubt as to where the manager was apportioning the blame.
To an extent, he was right. Sunderland made basic errors that no coach can legislate for. Javier Manquillo was exposed all too often at right-back, as was Patrick van Aanholt on the other side. Jan Kirchhoff and Lamine Kone were culpable in allowing Benteke’s winner. The lack of any on-pitch leader for the hosts was painfully evident.
Yet Moyes must know he is the main culprit behind Sunderland’s current malaise. He inherited a squad that survived Premier League relegation last season, spent £26million, and has made it considerably weaker. His typically negative comments in the media appear to have pervaded the club. The players look bereft of confidence. He has no discernible plan, no identifiable playing system, no indication that he can turn this around. As he did throughout his last Premier League tenure, he looks like a man with no clue; he looks like a manager trapped in a bygone era.
Moyes might be the man who transformed Everton from perennial relegation battlers to a top-seven side, but his failures are far more recent and relevant than his success. He is the same man who has met his demise at the hands of the board of directors at his last two clubs. He already faces a battle to avoid making it an unwanted hat-trick.