When the last season ended I reflected on Jack Ross’s first campaign in charge, and felt that despite the obvious issues we’d seen envelop over the course of the season that he deserved a second go at getting Sunderland promoted.
Ross, after all, stepped in to a position last year with some huge issues facing him. We barely had 11 players on the first day of training, which showed just how much work the club had to do in the transfer market last summer. There were a number of players who simply had to leave, and two in particular courted controversy when they refused to return back for pre-season training. Ross and the recruitment team around him had to build a squad quickly that would be able to compete right from the off in League One, something he managed to work with as the goals from an emerging Josh Maja helped to ease the other squad members around him into life as Sunderland players.
And our first few months in League One were interesting. We had a small squad, but we played in a manner which got the best from each individual. We played on the front foot, pressed the opposition high up the pitch and scored plenty of goals. We went unbeaten for large stretches of the season, and going into January we were in a great position to kick on.
But, with the luxury of signing new players now afforded to him, Jack Ross became more and more conservative as the weeks dragged by. We signed players - namely Grant Leadbitter - who suited a more defensive style of play, and the success we found with Josh Maja leading the line was not replicated as the season rumbled on.
Ross’s tactical game plan became less about outscoring our opposition, and more about covering for the fact we had such a weak back line. We had a strong side, but we didn’t have a strong defence.
The manager’s attempts at remedying the situation had a direct effect on the productivity of our forwards, and the sheer amount of draws that we garnered became a sore point amongst supporters who couldn’t wrap their head around why we weren’t even attempting to overwhelm far weaker opposition on a more consistent basis.
It would be fair to say that the conservatism of Sunderland’s manager was a key factor in why we weren’t ultimately able to take advantage of the various opportunities that we had to gain automatic promotion.
Yet, despite failing yet again to win at Wembley, I was keen to see Jack Ross given another transfer window to strengthen his side. And, in fairness, I think we can all agree that the summer business that Sunderland have done so far has been good. We’ve improved our defensive options, added a proven Football League goalscorer to our forward line and have signed the 21-year old captain of Walsall whom I’m told was our number one midfield target going into the recruitment window.
Yet, despite all of this, something just doesn’t feel right to me.
People say we shouldn’t read too much into pre-season results and form, and to a large extent I’d agree with that, but the manner of the performances and the way that Sunderland have set up from a tactical standpoint have me concerned that Jack Ross hasn’t learned a thing from his failures last season.
The change to a new system was a welcome one when we were first shown it at South Shields, but as the games have rumbled on it’s became clear - to me at least - that Ross hasn’t really taken the reins off his side by allowing them to play in a more expansive style.
Instead, the addition of an extra man to the defence appears to have been an entirely conservative decision. The wing backs don’t join in with the attacks as much as you’d expect, we play with two holding midfielders who aren’t encouraged to join in with the forwards, and the striker looks isolated from the rest of the team.
Including the goalkeeper and the back three, that’s EIGHT primarily defensive players, in a side who are supposedly gunning for promotion, who appeared tasked with staying disciplined and playing a wholly uninspired style of football.
In fact, it wasn’t until George Dobson, Marc McNulty and Luke O’Nien were introduced from the bench on Saturday night that we actually looked capable of scoring and creating chances. Their infectious energy and collective willingness to try something different pushed the entire team further up the pitch, and for the first time in the game we didn’t look like a team trying their best not to concede.
Hopefully Ross sits back after the team face Hartlepool today, in their behind closed doors friendly at the Academy of Light, and properly analyses both the good and bad aspects of how his team have performed in his new system.
What seems obvious to me is that whilst we’re harder to break down, and look infinitely more organised, we’re still not creating enough chances in the final third and are relying heavily on the individual brilliance of certain players to score us goals. The big positive we can take, however, is that we have a squad that is more than capable of playing on the front foot.
Truth be told, we have an embarrassment of riches for a League One side and there really cannot be any excuses for Sunderland failing to gain promotion this season, especially when you look at the depth and quality of the pool of players that Jack Ross has to pick from. With just a small number of tactical tweaks we can hit the ground running and take teams to task in League One - but ultimately our manager has to be open to doing it.
These are basic, rudimentary flaws in our style of play that cannot be accepted as normal in the new season or I fear we’ll be in for an incredibly tough campaign.
I don’t want to over-analyse the finer details of something that was effectively a training game, but these are trends which plagued Sunderland from January onward last season too. Our manager has a tendency to be over-cautious, and we simply will not overwhelm teams at this level by continuing to play in this manner.
All eyes are on Saturday, then. Will Sunderland take the game to Oxford, create chances for the forwards and have a midfield that pushes forward and looks to overwhelm our opposition? These are questions that only Jack Ross and his players can answer. Here’s hoping, for the sake of us all, that Sunderland can start the season in the best possible manner. If we don’t, I fear for the future of our manager.
With the strongest squad in the division at his disposal, the pressure is now on him to deliver success in the most stylish manner possible. The supporters and owners have placed faith in Jack Ross’s ability to deliver success - now he must prove to everyone why he’s the right man to take Sunderland forward and out of League One this season.