I’ve heard it said many times before, especially by ex-players and managers, that the better sides avoid defeat when they’re having an off day. So far, we still remain undefeated.
The first day of the season always has the potential to throw up the odd coupon buster when teams are finding their feet and this season was no exception. Portsmouth and Peterborough United were two scalps on the opening day, losing games both teams probably expected to win.
New systems and new players all need to come together as one on the same day and hit the ground running. This pursuit is also made more challenging if the new players are signed closer to the opening day of the season when they haven’t had the time to integrate into the group.
Our opening day fixture at the Stadium of Light saw us field four debutants in the form of Conor McLaughlin, Jordan Willis, George Dobson and Marc McNulty. We could also arguably add Elliot Embleton to that list as - although he isn’t new to the club - it is the twenty-year-old’s first season in and around the first team squad at Sunderland having spent most of last season at Grimsby Town plying his trade in League Two.
That’s five of the starting XI against Oxford United that were not involved last season against the backdrop of not only signing players late, but also having a relatively shorter four-game pre-season schedule.
This meant, of the four, only Conor McLaughlin and Willis actually started pre-season games. This was added to the fact that we looked like we were planning on a wholesale change of system, moving to wing-backs and three at the back to start the 2019/20 season.
As for the game itself, my feelings at the time and through watching it back after the fact, was that we started the game brightly and we’re unlucky not to be ahead through McNulty who impressed me from the off despite still finding his feet. The first ten minutes of the game also had a good tempo and we looked dangerous going forward. Then, we had a sucker punch on thirteen minutes that killed our confidence.
After a brief stoppage, the game slowed and the lull proved fatal when we gave away possession and Oxford broke away and scored. Goals change games, and this was no exception. The body language of the Sunderland players changed immediately as they knew Oxford could protect their lead and play on the break.
The result of this would mean we would now have to break down a wall of players sitting 5-10 yards outside of the penalty area waiting for us to come to them. As we showed on multiple occasions last season, this type of game at home doesn’t suit us and we could do with a ‘Plan B’.
We lost the tempo from our initial start and it’s not an easy thing to pick it back up again - especially as the opposition is now prepared to sit and dig in perhaps more than their game plan from the off. Thankfully, though, we did manage to find an opening via a penalty and avoided defeat.
Nobody - fans, players or management - need to be told just quite how bad we were at Ipswich a week later – especially in the first half.
Reading the comments after the game from Jack Ross and George Dobson in the following days, indicated they knew within the camp that what they produced was unacceptable. However, they did improve second half (albeit slightly) and came away from a team that will likely be challenging for honours at the top, with a point that will no doubt age well as the season progresses.
Then we have the cup game, where although a 3-1 win away from home is nothing to be sniffed at, it’s worth taking into account that Ross made six changes from Portman Road.
The performance wasn’t necessarily amazing, but could be described as much improved when looked at in the context of the Ipswich game that preceded it. Still littered with giving the ball away cheaply and a familiar score line of 1-1 with eleven minutes remaining, the introduction of Aiden McGeady changed the game when he did what he has done so many times for Sunderland - produce a moment of magic.
The worrying aspect of all the games so far is the seeming lack of a solid system or line-up that we appear settled on. Some of the partnerships on the field take time to develop, and as it was plain to see down our left hand side on the opening day this hasn't happened as yet. It's fairly clear to see that we desperately need to find a system and style that fits, and we need to find it quickly.
We need an injection of enthusiasm on and off the field, and it needs to happen fast.
A big performance will change the feeling around the whole club. On paper, we’re one goal away from having the start I’d expected; in terms of performances, we’re way behind where I, and I assume Jack Ross also, would expect us to be - especially given the players we have at our disposal.
We need to find our rhythm and there’s no better time than against our friends from the south coast this week.