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Taking stock of Sunderland’s situation - will we have enough to achieve automatic promotion?

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Despite a solid start to the season for Sunderland, Jack Ross knows just as much as the next man that results need to improve if this season is to end in success.

Oxford United v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images

Another game, another draw for Jack Ross’ men - the seventh in nine matches. Sunderland remain unbeaten at home this season, yet recent results have not been those of a side challenging for automatic promotion.

Elements of the fanbase are left feeling frustrated with the current situation - especially after the side’s excellent start to the campaign. Others point to the incredible transition that has occurred since the summer, and argue to even be in with a chance of promotion is an achievement in itself.

The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle of those two ideas. Yes, after such a bright start to the season it’s not unfair to suggest the team should be in a better position than the one we currently find ourselves in. But, on the other hand, if you take a step back and look at the bigger picture, our current position isn’t exactly abysmal.

In terms of positivity, there’s a lot to be said about Jack Ross’ impact on the club thus far. You need only look back to the unmitigated disasters of the past two seasons, and the enormous task he inherited this summer in overhauling a skeletal squad of players, many of whom were desperate to leave the club at the first possible opportunity, in order to appreciate his positive impact.

Not only did Ross do well in redeveloping the first-team squad, but he also was able to find immediate success with four wins coming from our opening five league games. Of course, it’s recent results that have been the issue, and it feels as though a large part of that coincides with the saga of Josh Maja’s protracted move to France.

Since the young striker’s future was put into doubt, Sunderland have simply struggled to find more than one goal per game. In fact, since Boxing Day - right in the midst of the Maja saga - Sunderland have only managed 11 league goals in 10 league games whilst conceding 8.

Across the field Sunderland have strengthened, and it could be argued that once the new signings settle into their new surroundings - and once Will Grigg starts finding the back of the net - then Sunderland’s fortunes will ultimately sway back onto a more positive trail. But that needs to happen sooner rather than later.

Sunderland currently sit in fourth place with 15 league games left to play. They are 12 points behind leaders, Luton, and 6 points behind second-placed Barnsley - there’s still a lot of points to be played for and a good run of form could well catapult us back into contention for an automatic berth. Time is still on our side, and although wins needs to come soon, it’s not as though we’re entirely cut adrift from the possibility of promotion.

Will Grigg be the man to fire us back up the table?
Safc.com via Getty Images

However, despite the positives, there are also some concerns that should be duly noted and must be remedied rather swiftly if we are to have a successful end to the season.

One worrying issue is the fact that despite the club strengthening in both windows, Jack Ross doesn’t seem to know his preferred starting XI, or indeed his preferred style of play. Considering we’ve over 30 games into the season, that’s a rather concerning problem.

Success often stems from stability, players need time to develop their confidence, but in recent weeks it feels like we’ve chopped and changed rather erratically.

For example, after the draw at home to Luton last month Ross dropped Dylan McGeouch for the next game despite the fact that the Scotsman was one of the best players on the pitch during the Luton game. Luke O’Nien was then dropped to the bench after a string of impressive displays at right back - both odd calls to make when searching for stability and success.

This lack of consistency has, in turn, led to some rather disappointing results as Sunderland’s season has hit a rather sticky spell.

Add into the equation that players like Lynden Gooch, Chris Maguire, Max Power, and Lee Cattermole - all fantastic performers at the beginning of the season - have struggled to find form in recent months, and the worries have started to mount.

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Ultimately, though, we’ve just struggled to find the back of the net. We’re still dominating possession and fashioning chances, we’re just not taking them - that’s where we need Grigg, Wyke, and Sterling to step up and make a difference. Defensively, we’ve been shaky all season, but offensively we’ve suddenly struggled and that’s really harmed us.

The final worry that should be noted is that in recent weeks, Ross’ in-game decision making has lacked its usual sharpness.

Why wait five minutes into the second half of Friday’s draw to replace Wyke, who was clearly struggling? Ross was ruthless in the early weeks of the campaign, his decisions often reaping rewards, but for whatever reason recently he seems to have lost that decisive knack.

Fans are well within their right to fairly criticise when criticism is due - so long it is fair and constructive. That being said, moving forward it really is a case of trusting in our manager’s ability to organize and inspire his players.

Things need to improve rather quickly if we are to ensure a positive end to the campaign, but Jack Ross knows that just as much as anyone else. He will be disappointed in how recent matches have unfolded, and he will be eager to put things right.

There are a lot of games left to play this season, but results need to change for the better sooner rather than later. Here’s hoping it’s a case of onwards and upwards.