Dear Roker Report,
The Checkatrade final seemed to typify why I am more than a little concerned about promotion. I have long maintained that we have the best technical side in the league and I think that few would argue with that. We also have a massive budget compared to other teams and based on our chase for Grigg, the ability to outspend any other team. With these things in mind, some fans are certainly justified in thinking we have underperformed this season. There is no way we should be fighting for a play-off spot when we should be promoted by now.
What about the games in hand? That’s a fair point because if we win those games, we will be ahead of Barnsley by one point but let’s get real for a moment. We’ve had loads of games in hand before this season and been in a position where winning those games would have taken us top by a decent margin but how many times have we made those games count?
Every single time we’ve had to win games in hand to pass the teams above us we’ve failed to do so and as I write this we couldn’t afford to lose one to make it into an automatic promotion spot. Barnsley’s latest result has certainly helped to ease the pressure a bit but the point is that while I’m reasonably confident we won’t lose many, if any, I’m not really ever convinced we can win either. Based on the historical evidence of the season, drawing the games in hand is more likely and that is unlikely to be enough. In that respect, the final against Portsmouth was absolutely typical of Sunderland this season; we should have won but we managed to draw.
It’s not just that we have a habit of drawing too much that has me concerned. We have a LOT of matches in a short space of time and on paper, we have the toughest end of the season of any of the top teams and to me, that makes draws or losses more likely. With that sort of fixture congestion and the way we’re playing, I see no way we will win all of those games.
I also have serious concerns about our tactics and our general approach to games. I’m a massive O’Nien fan and I think he’s done an absolutely top job at RB but we can’t ignore that he’s not a RB and as such, he has severe limitations in that role. He’s far more comfortable going forward and is most effective going forward so if Ross wants to play him in that sort of position, Ross really has to play three at the back and allow him to operate as a WB. Ross won’t do this and insists on stubbornly sticking to 4-2-3-1 where we will never get the best out of O’Nien. If Ross won’t switch to a 3-5-2, he has to play O’Nien in a more advanced midfield role where he can properly support the striker.
It’s also been perfectly clear for some time, including at Wembley, that we’ve wasted our money on Grigg. I think he’s a good player, even if we did pay way too much for him, but there’s no point having the most expensive player in League One history if you’re going to starve him of service and not play to his strengths. Grigg has never had proper service in our team, we’ve never played to his strengths and unsurprisingly, he’s looked bang average at best. He’s a good striker but until Ross starts to adapt the way we play to give him some proper service, we might as well play a traffic cone up front for all the good he’s doing us.
So far I’ve found it mildly irritating that Ross sticks to 4-2-3-1 when it’s just not working, or at least the players he picks don’t work well with it. He either has to rethink who plays that system or change the system because at this stage I think it’s almost impossible for us to win the league we should have romped and unlikely we will secure an automatic promotion slot. If it goes to the play-offs we’re in a lottery but we’re entering that lottery with a team, a manager and a tactic that seems more likely to draw than anything else.
We have the players to do the job, we have the supportive owners to do the job, we have the facilities to do the job and we certainly have the fans to do the job so as much as I like Ross, it will be entirely down to him if we don’t go up this season.
Despite the general tone of this letter, I still believe we can beat Barnsley to the second automatic promotion spot but to do so, Ross has to change things around so we stop hoofing balls up the park on a wing and a prayer and we have to start getting some decent service and support to Grigg.
Ed’s Note [Gav]: There’s a lot from the result and performance yesterday that we can take. I agree that the cautious nature of Ross’ approach concerns me, and I believe that we’d have won more games (and lost more, but would perhaps have more points on board) if he was more adventurous. That said, nothing is guaranteed and hindsight is wonderful. Ross has a huge squad at his disposal and he’s having to find a balance with his selections.
Personally I’m proud of the Lads and the way we played. We found out yesterday that Charlie Wyke does in fact have a role in this side, and his assist for the equaliser was class. Perhaps we need to try him and Grigg together at some point as it may just be what it takes to get the best from the man we signed to replace the goals we lost when Josh Maja departed.
Ultimately, let’s have faith. They show time after time that they can come from behind and that their mentality is strong. We are six points off Barnsley with three games in hand - I’m confident we’ll pick up the results we need to overtake them. Keep the faith!