The week ahead for Jack Ross and Sunderland AFC is an absolutely enormous one. After a frustrating draw away to Wycombe at the weekend, the Lads must dust themselves down, reorganize, and prepare for this Tuesday’s clash with second-placed Barnsley.
Should Sunderland emerge victorious from their match at Oakwell they will find themselves a mere point behind the Tykes - though Ross’ men will hold a game in hand. Subsequently, should the Lads continue to find success in the league then capitalising on that game in hand could mean a tangible chance of automatic promotion.
As such, this Tuesday’s game is colossal in terms of its importance.
Win, and there’s a very real chance of automatic promotion.
Lose, and the play-offs look like a very real possibility. It’s all to play for.
Here's what tonight's result does to the top six...#EFL | #SkyBetLeagueOne pic.twitter.com/brrqwVQ5Ed— Sky Bet League One (@SkyBetLeagueOne) March 9, 2019
Moving into this week, Jack Ross and Sunderland must analyse what enabled the team to find an upswing in form. Comparing the frustrating Wycombe game with our performances beforehand is a great place to start.
Wycombe, simply put, bullied Sunderland into submission. Gareth Ainsworth’s side played a fast, direct game that didn’t allow Sunderland the possession and time they desire in order to dominate proceedings.
That problem, however, was exacerbated by our defenders’ actions when in possession. For example, Jimmy Dunne and Tom Flanagan attempted fifteen long passes between them during the game - yet only five were accurate. Playing long balls against a physical, aggressive side just didn’t work - and really hasn’t all season.
Goingg forward, Sunderland must use the experience and poise of Leadbitter and Cattermole to better effect. Sunderland couldn’t control the middle because the midfield was largely bypassed, and this lack of an attacking base prevented the team from really taking the game to Wycombe.
Tuesday evening’s game might, however, see Jack Ross pressed into making several changes to his side. Both George Honeyman and Tom Flanagan left the field with head injuries - with Honeyman also receiving a red after leaving the pitch - whilst Duncan Watmore also left the pitch with what looked to be a nasty ankle injury.
Regardless of who takes the field, the Lads must understand that they are more than capable of outplaying Barnsley should they stick to the style of play that has brought recent success. Hoofing the ball forward in hope of a break, misjudgment, or chance of a second ball does not suit our strengths whatsoever. Instead, allowing Leadbitter to run the show from a deep position is a must.
Sunderland must also do a better job of supporting Will Grigg who was terribly isolated at the weekend. The sensible option would see Gooch come into the side to link up with McGeady and Morgan, but Ross might also be tempted to add more steel to his midfield with the inclusion of Max Power given license to push further forward.
Ultimately, Sunderland must play a more strategic game. Phases need to be built, and Will Grigg needs to be provided better service in and around the penalty area. Working the ball wide with no end product was a symptom of Sunderland’s lacklustre performance at the weekend - tomorrow we need to be clinical.
Barnsley are without star striker Kieffer Moore for the rest of the season, as well as banned midfield maestro, Cameron McGeehan. Sunderland must use those absences to their advantage.
We’ve seen a lot of ‘must-win’ games over the years, but this one really feels significant.