My gut feeling is that we’re exactly where we were at the end of last season, which isn’t too far off where we were for Charlton at home this time last year.
Jack Ross has had over sixty games in charge, has signed practically a whole new squad, and now tried numerous systems and formations – and yet the same problems plague the squad; defensive mistakes; possession without intent; slow, stodgy attack, and a general lack of ruthlessness at both ends of the pitch are still evident and show no sign of abating any time soon.
We also looked very much like a team that has only had four proper pre-season games, in which we only scored in twice. While McGeouch and Embleton were our best performers in my eyes, they both looked absolutely knackered after around sixty minutes, and the general lack of cohesion and sharpness evident in Willis’ repeatedly suicidal passes gave the general impression of a team that is anything but raring to go.
Our wingers, and Denver Hume in particular, have gotten a lot of stick for their final third deliveries throughout the match, but in my opinion the real problem was the lack of connection with the few effective crosses that were played into the box.
Jack Ross has clearly instructed the players to focus on getting the ball out wide and then into the box, but when we have strikers so starved of touches that they’re coming deep to collect the ball and then move it to the wings it’s no surprise that no one is there to get on the end of deliveries. Set pieces were no better, with Embleton’s highly impressive skill of taking corners and free kicks with both feet being completely wasted - it doesn’t look to me like we’ve practiced a single set-piece routine in all of pre-season.
Aside from these crosses and a couple of free kicks that went straight into the wall, I was also deeply worried by the fact that I counted only one shot from our strikers in the game, which was McNulty’s early effort saved by Eastwood.
Again, Jack Ross has assembled without doubt the most expensive League One squad ever, and while Grigg has had a fair share of criticism he is objectively the best ever striker at League One level. That we can’t even create chances for him is extremely worrying for me, and again this falls on our manager.
I think back to the back-end of last season, when people were suggesting Ross deserved a full pre-season and yet more signings to fix the team, and while Saturday was the first game of this season it was far from the first of Ross’ games in charge.
For me, the only arguments I hear in favour of him have nothing to do with him at all - its either that we don’t know who he’d be replaced by, that we need stability, that we should avoid becoming a “sacking club” again, generally arguments more steeped in abstract notions than hard fact.
For me, I think its clear that the problems with Sunderland are down to the man in charge of fixing these problems, and his consistent failure to do so. Jack Ross has only ever coached true underdog teams, and now he finds himself in the complete opposite situation, and I honestly think he doesn’t know how to create a free-flowing attacking team.
I don’t blame him particularly, and I’m not sure how coaches are supposed to find the time and resources to learn new ways of coaching, but I think we could give him five, ten, or twenty games to “save his job” and not see much of an improvement.
Results earned by the relative quality of our players patched over a lot of underlying dysfunctions early last season that came to the fore in our post-January collapse, and we simply cannot afford to let this happen again.
The toxicity of the atmosphere on Saturday alone could be enough to harm our home results and dissuade players from joining, and it should be nipped in the bud.