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Roker Roundtable: Sunderland are back on track - what area should we prioritise to improve next?

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Sunderland won last night, scoring four in the process, and we’re seemingly back on track. But, there’s always room for improvement - and our panel of writers discuss what they think Jack Ross and his team should do in the short term.

Sunderland AFC

Q: We’ve finally won a game again - and now we’re over that hill it feels like we can afford to breathe a bit. But, there’s still room for improvement. If you could pick one really important thing that you’d like to see Sunderland work on and improve over the next few games, what would it be, and why?

James Nickels says...

We were able to dictate the game much better, largely thanks to Gillingham’s willingness to sit deep and allow our midfield to have the ball. Catts impressed in his first game in what seems like an age, and Grant Leadbitter dictated the whole game and in the second half carried out some great vertical and long passes into the channel.

However, despite this our defence still looked shaky - especially early on. To concede two very sloppy goals against a side who barely attacked is simply not good enough. I’d like to see the defensive unit keep their line and positions much more effectively, far too often is one of our players dragged out of position too easily (especially Jimmy Dunne) and as a result the defensive line is both lopsided and gaping with holes.

Jack Ross had largely solved much of our ailing fortunes at corners (especially in attack) and now he must find the right balance in order to see games out much more effectively.

Dunne, Baldwin, Flanagan, Ozturk and Loovens have all made their own costly individual errors this season, and all are prone to losses in concentration (some more than others). I’d find a settled backline and keep it that way.

Our three first-picks are all young and/or error prone, which explains the selection of Leadbitter and Cattermole. A great offence wins games, but the best defence wins leagues. Cut these errors out, and our results will improve ten-fold.

Sunderland AFC

Damian Brown says...

For all that I’m delighted at receiving a much-needed 3 points at this crucial stage of our campaign, I can’t ignore the glaring flaws in the way we went about taking them.

We won the game and that’s fantastic, but as well as conceding two goals we were dependent on penalties to seal the deal. Were it not for the choices made by those officiating we would likely be mourning another two points dropped. I don’t want to be pessimistic but considering the calibre of officials we’ve been subjected to so far this season I think even a blatant foul given is a rare advantage and one we may not receive again.

In the absence of half-decent referees we have to be capable of killing games off. The overall quality of the goals we scored was marred by circumstance - to be blunt, for all that the team worked hard to earn the victory, we got lucky.

Offensively I think most teams should have cause to worry about us. Defensively? Even with two defensive midfielders sitting in front of them they still look shocking, and it just so happens that those times coincide with conceded goals. It’s become far too commonplace to see the Sunderland defence opened up and cut apart, and often we’re not even witnessing an attack of any particular quality. It takes little more than basic tactics and some can-do attitude to penetrate the back line, and for as long as that continues the likelihood of our promotion remains anyone’s guess.

But what can be done? There are no reinforcements coming to bolster the line and a cursory glance at the stable tells us we aren’t drowning in talented defenders.

One has to wonder though if the introduction of the likes of Hume and Oviedo when fit would give us the attacking impetus on the flanks that ensures our opponents attacks don’t break through to the very last line of defence.

In spite of some calamitous performances from Dunne in recent weeks I wouldn’t trust Alim Ozturk to shield himself from the rain, let alone a goalmouth from professional footballers. I’ve said before that consistency is key and so again I can’t justify ringing in massive changes, nor do I believe Dunne is a bad player. I believe we simply need to stop depending on the last line of defence when we could feasibly control the game in other areas and eliminate the need to panic at every bang-average assault the opponent makes.

Sunderland AFC

Craig Davies says...

Defensive organisation, leadership and playing to Grigg’s strengths are key areas moving forward.

Firstly, our attacks can’t be as consistent or effective if our creative players are concerned with isolating our defence and leaving them to look like they’re chasing crisp packets in a hurricane.

It was a good victory last night and certainly much needed but we still conceded 2 at home and Dunne looked as anxious as a vibrator salesman being stopped at airport security.

Flanagan and Baldwin weren’t the greatest as a pair, but their partnership (while shaky at times) also coincided with an excellent run before Christmas. Dunne’s arrival and constant selection has thrown the defence into a nervous tail spin. The lad seems genuine, it’s not all his fault by any stretch and it’s a shame it’s not working, but it’s not. Whether that means a return for Ozturk or a change to a slightly different system, it’s clear that our recent defensive formations are not the answer and the Ross has to find one quickly.

In terms of leadership, I felt the return of Catts was crucial. I know he has his detractors in terms of his mobility and pace, but moving towards the business end of the season, Catts the leader will be much more important to us than Catts the player.

Finally, it was great to see Grigg get off the mark and if he’s going to fire us to promotion we need to play to his strengths every game. Slow, methodical build up play that strangles pace and width won’t help. Despite being delighted with the win, Last night was a solid platform to build upon but no more than that.

Sunderland AFC

Chris Camm says...

Take more care of the ball - specifically the defence.

Specifically the centre halves. Specifically Jimmy Dunne.

Overall we need to improve defensively, that goes without saying, however I think Jack Ross is missing a trick if he doesn’t spend some time in training sessions working on our defenders’ ability to control the ball and pick the right pass.

In theory it should be easy: long ball comes over the top, you win the header and direct it towards Leadbitter. Or the ball comes out from the keeper, control it, make a simple pass to either one of the full backs or the centre of midfield.

On too many occasions in the last few games we’ve seen players sending the ball straight back to our opponents when they had time to take a touch and keep the ball, inviting more pressure onto what is already a fragile back line.

Do yourselves a favour - stop giving the ball away so cheaply!

It sounds so simple from here in my armchair.

Sunderland AFC

James Smith says...

Now that the corners seem sorted I’d like to see a vast improvement in our general balls into the box. It’s impossible for Leadbitter to play both wings simultaneously so our players on the flanks really need to up their game in this department.

McGeady and Gooch are my biggest culprits in this - always getting the ball on the wing, and 8/10 times their cutbacks are missing our players, being intercepted easily or the crosses aren’t beating the first man.

The one time a correct decision was made on the wing yesterday, and a good ball was put in, we got a penalty. Another time, Honeyman should have scored. As long as O’Nien is at right back he’s going to be arriving into those areas, Honeyman is going to be offering an option coming into the box - yet the balls are nearly always near misses.

We need to show a bit of class in these moments, and be as clinical as we were at the beginning of the season.

It’s a minor gripe, but when you’re near the top of the league it’s these fine margins, and minor moments, that separate automatic promotion from the dreaded playoffs.