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There’s still work to be done, but small steps the key to continued improvement for Sunderland

“Saturday’s victory at home to MK Dons this weekend was by no means a classic, but it did have signs that Sunderland are making small steps forward” writes Tom Atkinson.

Sunderland v MK Dons - Sky Bet League 1 Photo by Steven Hadlow/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Saturday’s victory at home to MK Dons this weekend was by no means a classic, but it did have signs that Sunderland are making small steps forward.

The pressure has been on Jack Ross the last few weeks and after a great victory away to Sheffield United in the cup, this weekend’s victory at home to MK Dons highlighted the fact that, although Sunderland still have a lot of work to do, they are showing signs of improvement.

In terms of our defensive showing, our central midfield pairing, and our ability to hold onto a lead - Sunderland showed that they could well be a team on the up.

Sunderland v MK Dons - Sky Bet League 1 Photo by Steven Hadlow/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Defence looked solid

Sunderland’s central defenders, Jordan Willis and Joel Lynch, showed glimpses that they could well be the duo we’ve needed to provide a streak of bullish nastiness to our side.

Joel Lynch won all of his aerial duels this past weekend, and between him and Jordan Willis the central defensive duo won 16 out of the 21 duels (both aerial and on the ground) they faced. That’s pretty impressive stuff.

McLaughlin and De Bock also both looked solid if unspectacular in the full back positions. De Bock showed some nice touches going forward and put a great delivery in for O’Nien who could only hit the post with his header.

It wasn’t a perfect defensive display, and Jon McLaughlin faces further scrutiny as his errors of judgement handed MK Dons a way back into the game, but by and large the Lads looked solid - it was a performance to build on.

Sunderland v MK Dons - Sky Bet League 1 Photo by Steven Hadlow/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Power and McGeouch have to start moving forward

Max Power and Dylan McGeouch looked a very competent duo in the middle of the park. Power looked hungry both in and out of possession and bagged another fantastic goal with his long range strike. He had another couple of good opportunities, too, and was a real driving force for Ross’ side.

McGeouch didn’t play quite as well as Power, but the diminutive Scot shows glimpses of absolute quality on occasion. When he is utilised properly by the side, and allowed to dictate proceedings with his snappy short-range passing, the team look impressive.

One negative from the performance is the way they struggled somewhat during the second half, moving away from their shorter game into a more direct attempt at finding teammates. The long ball just doesn’t work as effectively as when we get the ball on the ground and play good football.

The first Sunderland goal comes from the Lads refraining from punting long and instead looking to find players in space. Maguire picks the ball up from O’Nien’s accurate clearance, slides the ball to Wyke, who lays off Power with plenty of time and space to find the back of the net. The play is snappy and accurate and the ball is never played off the ground.

The second goal is more direct, with Conor McLaughlin finding O’Nien with a long ball over the top, but by and large Sunderland looked more impressive when they tried to get the ball on the deck and move with urgency.

One thing perhaps worth noting is the fact that Dobson could have been introduced sooner to provide more legs in the middle of the park. Sunderland struggled to replicate their first half performance and Dobson’s tenacity could have been the remedy required to kick Sunderland back into life - it’s something to work on.

Sunderland v MK Dons - Sky Bet League 1 Photo by Steven Hadlow/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Sunderland attack with intent & hold onto the lead

Sunderland have struggled to find a forward line that looks capable of continuously testing the opposition. As Steve Tiltman noted in his excellent article last week, “Turning attention back to Sunderland, our generally high quality of finishing masks problems elsewhere. We seem to rely almost entirely on moments of quality from players of quality.”

This wasn’t the case this past weekend, though as they Lads managed 18 shots, with 6 on target and 5 blocked. Part of the solution to the issue this past weekend, was down to Luke O’Nien’s willingness to try and make things happen. His energy and determination to get into the opposition box meant MK Dons were tested on numerous occasions. Pairing him with McNulty could be the key to increasing the amount of goals we score.

Additionally, Max Power’s willingness to test the opposition goalkeeper from distance is also something we’ve lacked at times this season. He looked like the midfielder we thought we’d acquired last season ahead of his dip in form.

Ultimately, Sunderland looked to attack a lot more this past weekend, and although we stumbled somewhat second half, the Lads battled and held onto the lead. It’s small steps that make success, and this past weekend Sunderland took a few teetering paces in the right direction.