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OPINION: Sunderland’s poor run of starting games badly must end - here’s one suggested solution

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In almost every league game this season Sunderland have conceded the opening goal of the game; moving forward something has to change. But what’s the issue, and how could Jack Ross combat it?

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Every game that passes we will learn to cope with how teams have a go when they come here. It is done through learning and training.

In that early period we have to deal with the messy side of the game better, winning headers and tackles and set-pieces. Opening periods can be frenetic.

Jack Ross is under no illusions that his Sunderland side’s poor starts to games is an issue that needs to be resolved. The Black Cats have conceded first in five of their seven league fixtures so far this season, and despite remaining unbeaten in League One, the Sunderland manager knows that this is a habit that must be broken as quickly as possible.

But what is the root cause of this frailty in our opening forays, and how can Jack Ross potentially resolve the issue at hand?

In some games it has been a physicality issue. There are also games where it is individual mistakes. As a manager you can’t always legislate for that. Something can be made better – that is individual concentration.

It happens at all levels of football, there is nothing more in training you can do to guarantee that won’t happen. You just try to cut down the vulnerability and that comes with repetition.

Are Sunderland struggling in terms of physicality?
Sunderland AFC via Getty images.

One such issue that has been highlighted by Ross in the wake of a relatively disappointing draw with Fleetwood Town at the weekend is the fact that his side may currently lack the physicality to compete with opposition sides’ furious opening exchanges.

Sunderland have struggled to cope with the opposition’s sheer size and tenacity in the opening exchanges of every game I’ve seen this season, and Ross could well look to his bench in order to shore up his side.

Tom Flanagan looks a very capable defender at this level - his height and presence could well prove to be crucial in alongside Loovens and Baldwin if we are to begin to dominate early proceedings. He’s also calm on the ball, and his flexibility across a variety of positions will be invaluable.

Furthermore, Jerome Sinclair’s introduction has brought pace, power and a boatload of flair to the team. Standing just shy of six feet tall, Sinclair’s addition to the team is twofold in terms of packing extra punch to our midfield, whilst also offering a dangerous outlet when going forward.

If Ross wants more presence on the pitch, those two players, along with Charlie Wyke, give us a little more of the brutish physicality we may need in order to begin games with more purpose.

Sinclair looks an exciting player.
Sunderland AFC via Getty images.

Ross also highlighted the fact that individual mistakes are difficult to prevent, and that perhaps the best way to resolve this issue is through repetition and familiarity.

Five of the six goals we’ve conceded in the league this season have come from set-pieces, and as much as adding strength and height into the team is a potential solution to countering that threat - players on the pitch simply have to do a better job of concentrating.

That comes with time and experience, which will hopefully see a settled side emerge as we delve deeper into this campaign. However, one approach that could also be effective would be to play a very controlled brand of football in the opening exchanges in order to try and prevent opposition sides from gaining an early foothold.

Dylan McGeouch and Lee Cattermole have performed well this season, but both need to dictate the tempo from the get-go if we are to nullify any early threats.

Simultaneously, Sunderland simply have to stop lumping balls up aimlessly toward Josh Maja. We look at our best when completing small triangular passing sequences in order to work space for our wide players.

Josh Maja is not a target-man, but he is a predatory finisher - pairing him with the likes of Sinclair or Wyke might provide an outlet through pace or presence in order to allow the side to hold onto the ball more effectively in the opposition’s half.

Ultimately, though, we need our central midfielders to dictate play from the off if we hope to prevent sides from taking an early lead. We’re good at that as the game develops, but right now we need more immediacy.

Could Maguire be sacrificed in order to accommodate Sinclair or Wyke?
Sunderland AFC via Getty images.

That being said, sitting top four after such a summer of turnover is a really impressive feat; the manager and his staff deserve an enormous amount of credit for making this happen - something Ross has noted himself:

Every time we don’t win we should be disappointed - I want that mentality. They (the players) were disappointed when they came in.

We remain undefeated. As a realist at the start of the season we’d have said that’s okay to be in this position. It is a solid start, one that can better, but one that has given us a platform to be better.

Those last few lines reminded me of something Leo Tolstoy one said: “If you look for perfection, you’ll never be content.”

It’s nice to feel a little discontented as a fan because we’re finally seeing a team capable of playing brilliant football. Of course, nobody expects us to be perfect, but it’s that pursuit that breeds a winning mentality - and it’s that mentality Jack Ross seems keen to foster on Wearside.