Since Sunderland sold Darren Bent to Aston Villa, it has lost three of the four games it has played. The conclusion many have drawn is that Sunderland is "missing" him. This is the sad truth of punditry about sides outside the top five or six in the league; that it looks only at the surface, never beneath. What is particularly worrying is that that shallowness of analysis seems to extend even to the England manager.
Two things have gone wrong for Sunderland since Bent left. Firstly, after beating Blackpool, it has played three tough games -- at home to Chelsea, away to Stoke (where Sunderland's recent record is appalling) and at home to Tottenham. And secondly, it has lost the ability to defend set-pieces. The attack has had nothing to do with it. In fact, in the four games since Bent left Sunderland has scored seven goals. In the three he missed earlier in the season (coincidentally against those same three sides: Stoke, Tottenham and Chelsea) it scored six. With Bent this season, Sunderland average 1.65 goals per game; without him 1.86. That's a crude way of looking at things, of course, but given it's widely accepted that Bent's key attribute is his goal scoring (although his movement is far better than people given him credit for), it makes little sense to suggest that his absence has somehow weakened Sunderland.
The fixture-computer, which within certain parameters determines the fixture-list at random, has had an odd year. First it got everybody excited about Chelsea, by saving up the champion's toughest fixtures for the second part of the first of the season. Then, aided by bad weather in December, it has stored up for Manchester United away games at Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal that make its lead rather less commanding than it appears. It has also given Sunderland a weirdly imbalanced fixture list, pairing it in the space of seven games with Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester City, with away games at Stoke and Everton, where Sunderland have won once since 1982. Inevitably, results suffer during a run like that, and for Sunderland it's a case of hanging on, picking up what it can over the next month, and then trying to rediscover its form in the comparatively simple final seven matches of the season.
Recently, in fact, there has been much about Sunderland's attacking play to admire, particularly against Stoke and Tottenham. Asamoah Gyan and Kieran Richardson, who has played deep off him, appear to have a far better understanding than Gyan ever managed with Bent, while Stephane Sessegnon, bought from PSG during the January window, has looked exciting and inventive -- precisely the sort of creative presence Sunderland had been lacking.
In the first 20 minutes against Tottenham on Saturday, Sunderland was superb, moving the ball around at pace and with imagination. The only problem was that it yielded only one goal before the intoxication at how well the side was playing set in, and the verve dissolved in a flurry of needless backheels. Then the fatal weakness exposed by Stoke the week before kicked in again, Sunderland neglected to mark Michael Dawson at a corner and went in level at halftime having dominated the first half. A moment of brilliance from Niko Kranjcar settled it in a lively second half. Sunderland was lucky to get away from White Hart Lane with a 1-1 draw earlier in the season; here it was a little hard done to by the defeat. Bent's absence had nothing to do with it.
Since moving to Villa, Bent has scored twice in his first five starts for the club. That is precisely the same ratio as the eight in 20 he scored for Sunderland in the league (plus three in three in the cups) this season. Not that you'd know it from the multitude of analyses suggesting he has found a new lease of life at Villa Park. It is true that he looks a happier, more relaxed figure than he did in his final weeks at Sunderland, but it is still hard to square the reality with Fabio Capello's comments after selecting Bent for England's friendly against Denmark last week.
"Bent was not as good before the World Cup as he is at this moment, he was not the same player," he said. "I went to see Aston Villa twice. Before he was only playing for the box, now, he is a player who can play for the team." It's a statement that has an internal logic but simply doesn't match the fact. After all, one of those games that Capello saw was Bent's debut, the 1-0 win over Manchester City. In that match, he scored the winner, but managed only 23 touches of the ball. He didn't drop deep to create play; he just did what he had done for 18 months at Sunderland, which was to work the front line with great energy, only on this occasion, thanks to the pressure City exerted, the ball barely reached him.
Bent himself suggested Capello had told him the move to Villa would aid his chances of selection for the England squad, a bizarre claim given that, even after three straight defeats, Sunderland lie in a Europa League qualification slot while Villa is three places above the relegation zone. That Capello can judge a player can hardly be doubted, so the only logical conclusion is that Capello is had barely seen Bent play before his move and that he is more likely to watch Bent at Villa Park than he is at the Stadium of Light.
Sure enough, a quick check of the records reveals that Capello's last trip to Sunderland was in August 2009; he has seen Sunderland at times at away grounds, but given the disparity between Sunderland's home and away form, that is hardly giving him the full picture. Of course Capello is going to watch the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea more than Sunderland; of course geography means that, when kickoff times are staggered, he might be able to take in a game at Villa Park on his way to or from somewhere else, something that isn't possible with a club stuck in the far northeast. But not to go there for 18 months? To avoid Sunderland to such an extent that playing for it becomes an active disadvantage to a player hoping to play for England? It's inexcusable and suggests that those critics who have suggested he has lost enthusiasm for the job and is merely seeing out his contract may have a point. Not only is it lazy, it also potentially distorts competition by making it harder for Sunderland to sign England prospects and to keep hold of the ones it already has.
When the Football League was founded in 1889, Sunderland was forbidden to compete for two seasons for being "too far away;" 120 years later, it seems not much has changed. The irony is that the same pundits who spent 18 months not realizing how good Darren Bent was now think Sunderland is missing him far more than it actually is.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.