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OPINION: Sunderland’s International Break Report Card - Room for improvement despite good start

The international break is a bit like half term; we can look back on how we’ve done so far, and where we can improve. We’re grading Sunderland’s start to life in League One as a B - and here’s why.

The Lads training at the SoL in early August
Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The results are pleasing

Let’s first of all start with the positives - four wins, three draws and fourth in the table.

Compared with the two previous seasons we are living in heaven, showing grit and a never-say-die attitude. But when you peel back the first layer, that’s basically it.

The emerging consensus is that we’ve been flying by the seat of our pants and some of those results could have easily gone against us had our opponents not been so wasteful in the front of goal.

Grade: B

The overall grade so far is a B and the comment is (and we’ve all probably experienced this personally) that ‘Sunderland could probably do a lot better.’

There’s the weight of expectation and how we are living up to it. This is not just within Sunderland, but in the League more generally. When chairpersons of competitor clubs talk about the Lads walking away with the title, they are referring to the club, its assets and what these might mean in the long run.

They are not referring to what’s actually been happening so far on the pitch.

While we don’t have the divine right to win week-in week-out, there’s a widespread expectation that given the club, the manager and the squad assembled we should be overwhelming teams and clubs a fraction of our size.

On the evidence so far, however, we’ve only done this on one occasion – the performance and manner of the victory against Scunthorpe United at the Stadium of Light.

The Lads celebrate Josh Maja’s equaliser at the weekend, his fifth of the season.
Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The reason for this is that we’ve not demonstrated sufficient A-Grade playing traits for sufficiently long periods - A-Grade characteristics would, for example, comprise the tight passing and high pressing game that Jack Ross rightly prefers.

But the roughest of calculations of the games so far suggest that this style has only been achieved for about 30% of the time. Even the best of teams can’t keep this up all of the game, but what we are looking for is the high passing/high pressing game for double the time we have managed thus far.

Our midfield and defence have been quickly found out by opponents. The aim is to be highly aggressive; win set pieces and try to get balls into the box. Chances are we’ll go a goal down quite early on; the opposition can frustrate Sunderland from playing their preferred style and then the Lads will have to fight them to a standstill.

Conversely, we’ve not shown sufficient ability to break up the opponent’s pattern of play in order to gain possession and to press forward.

If you have the ball, they don’t and they can’t threaten you. It’s as basic as that.

Slow to start; we’ve invited pressure and then gone behind on no fewer than five occasions out of seven. Having not actually lost as a result has been some cause for celebration, but this kind of resilience is B-grade trait - a stubborn attribute that benefits when you’re not at your best.

This one is concerning – some players are not growing as the season progresses.

Okay, individual development is not linear; but if sufficient number of players go off the boil they unbalance the equilibrium of the team. It then becomes a mental team thing; an erosion of collective confidence to consistently play the kind of game that fans, players and manager know can be successful and that’s a joy to watch.

The B-grade in fact reflects a mini-crisis because while the Lads are ‘there and thereabouts’, it’s not a position that presently suggests automatic promotion.

Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

We have the potential to play A-grade football

Do we have a squad with A-Grade characteristics and potential? Absolutely. Moreover, we’ve got a great manager who thinks on his feet and in time will get the best from his players. This period – a mini bump in the road – has to transpire to be a feature of transition and settling down and not a B-grade ceiling.

So what is to be done? It’s certainly not a case of radical treatment; but instead a relentless focus on remedying vulnerabilities (set pieces!); playing to the evident strengths of the team to play the high pressing and passing game and being far more intense than the opposition from the off. Jack Ross talks about intensity in training. This has to be translated onto the pitch and in all its different forms.

If the club and its leadership were being assessed (the first 100 days) then it’s a straight A. The Team, on the other hand, now needs to step up a gear. A-Grade characteristics are well within its capabilities; it’s now up to Jack Ross and each member of the squad to bring these out.

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