Sunderland drew 1-1 at home to Wimbledon in our latest EFL League One outing on Tuesday evening. Thanks to a great goal from that renowned striker Bailey Wright, we were saved from giving away all three points, after allowing a spirited Wimbledon team to take the lead from the penalty spot post an error by McFadzean just before half time.
Going in 1-0 down at half time, concerns were rightly increasing among fans re whether we could break down the opposition defence at all. They had defended the chances we created quite well (though few shots on target forced saves) and while offering little other than counter attacking football, that to be fair was more effective than expected from a team who had shipped 9 goals in the last 2 league games (but scored 4). Thankfully, a great diagonal ball into Wright, who was still in the box from a prior Sunderland corner, was brought down and thrashed home across the keeper to gain us a valuable point just after the hour.
Despite 73% possession and just under 3 times the passes being made by Sunderland compared to the visitors with 86% pass accuracy, we only managed 4 shots on target compared to their 5. In truth, had Wimbledon been a bit more clinical in the early stages, or indeed later in the second half when they rallied after we had levelled, we could well have lost a game many felt was a comparative walk in the park, considering what was achieved in Lincolnshire only a few days prior.
So, what were the key talking points reflecting back on a result which was rather anticlimactic, and debatably a game that should have been postponed?
Should the game have happened at all?
Given our planet has been ravaged by a pandemic for over a year now, and given the fact the EFL have had one season cut short and another start late/already impacted Covid outbreaks in many cities, one would think it reasonable that a clear and robust process and communications setup would be in place by now, to deal with prompt game postponements when Covid related issues arise. Don’t you think?
Sadly, on that Monday and Tuesday in the middle of December, the EFL failed to provide suitable process and related timely guidance to SAFC when it was clear Covid infections were in the Sunderland squad, with SAFC actively seeking to prevent this from escalating across both clubs by seeking a postponement.
As can be seen from the club statement, the EFL were approached, but seemingly could not provide a clear reply about what would happen if the Mackems did the right thing to protect the players of both teams, as well as the staff and their families from this terrible virus, and less than 2 weeks before Xmas - the right thing being to postpone the game.
As a consequence, the game proceeded with 8 first team players unavailable for selection by Lee Johnson, not even a shadow of the side who were so victorious at Sincil Bank.
Significantly influential figures in the tactics of our new head coach including Wyke, McGeady, Maguire and Power were omitted from the starting eleven and the squad in general. Others were forced to play out of position, some for a full 90 when they weren’t yet fully fit after coming back from injury.
Some were forced to take their SAFC bow for the first time like young Mitchell Curry, in his instance after playing for the under 23s a mere 24h earlier.
It could be said we replaced the Lincoln victors with what looked a decent side, but in truth it was likely whoever Lee Johnson could scramble together without any risk of cross infection, to prevent further Covid spread as well as potential “investigations” by the EFL.
One must assume this squad was assembled this way as not doing so could have led to the game being forfeited, and/or potentially other points deductions being leveraged too.
In my opinion, this is a huge disappointment and embarrassment for the EFL. God forbid should anyone who visited the SOL on Tuesday fall ill as a result of this situation. The football league had better have very good lawyers ready to step in if that happens, and the track and trace points the finger to this game.
Nothing, and I mean NOTHING is more important than the health and well-being of our players, staff and their families, and those of our opponents. The lack of ready and clear guidance has put lives at risk, and for that the league need to hang their heads in shame, and sort the situation out IMMEDIATELY. This should not have happened once, and cannot happen again.
So in short, no the game should not have happened. Period.
How did the changes to the team impact the shape and performance?
At the back, the changes were arguably less significant, but all the same they were a change from those who ran out last weekend and who did so well.
In front of Burge, the defensive pairing of Flanagan and Wright was amended to be Wright and Sanderson, with the full backs staying as was, McFadzean and McLaughlin.
For me, Sanderson was one crescent of light around a very dark situation - he was quick, strong and good on the ball to the extent he may well have earned more minutes in games that will come in the future, post what is most likely to be at least one or two games in isolation for the whole squad.
In midfield and up front, way more significant changes were forced, with only Leadbitter the consistent party in the central three from Lincoln, with Power and Scowen being replaced by Dobson and Embleton. While the addition of Embleton to the starting eleven is something many have been clamouring for, he was clearly filling gaps such that he would struggle thrive, and he was dropped even deeper later on in the game.
Yes he did okay, but Embleton as we all know is not an okay player - he is a star of the future and I very much hope this game does not knock his confidence.
Dobson was just Dobson, industrious and well intended but lacking accuracy, guile and real pace/penetration. To be fair, ignoring Covid issues it was 50/50 whether Scowen could play, due to a leg injury which will now have him sidelined for 3-6 weeks depending on his recovery success. That said, the central midfield were a shadow of the three who crossed the chalk on Saturday, and given the loss of so much of the squad we had no depth on the bench, due to the isolation we had self decided with minimal league guidance.
While the midfield performance could be down to more than just the forced team selection and lack of prep due to that, the Covid aspects were central to the major change in performance for me.
Up front, the cobbled together trio of Grigg, OBrien and Diamond were equally as ineffective as the threesome behind them for me. O’Brien looked decent for the first 15 but after that was pretty anonymous, and to be fair that is no surprise when he hasn’t played for weeks due to being in recovery from injury too.
In the end he had to play a full 90 due to the situation, which may push his full recovery further back, who knows. The Wimbledon team had clearly done their homework to be fair to them, as once the OBrien engine started to fade (and at times before that) they simply went high numbers in midfield and defence, often doubling up on Diamond, and starved us of the creative juices we saw last time out. With an off-the-pace OBrien on the other side of the park rather than McGeady, and no senior experience to come on later in the game for either winger, we really were lucky to get a point from the situation.
Last weekend the bench included exciting potential game changers like Maguire, Embleton and Grigg, who I am sure would have scored as many as Wyke had he started last Saturday.
This week we had two part-injured/part fit players in Willis and Gooch, and five under 23 starlets, several of whom played the night before and were asked to make up the numbers again. It simply isn’t acceptable the club had to go to those lengths to play a game that should not have proceeded. The shape didn’t exist and the result reflected that.
Where do we go from here?
While it could be argued the spoils were halved, I personally think the EFL owe BOTH TEAMS a formal apology and should void the game, replaying it later in the season.
If AFC Wimbledon are good enough to “take a Sunderland scalp” as Lee put it recently, let them do that when both sides can field a full strength team in a safe, rescheduled replay.
If we are out played and they win, I will have no qualms. Facts are that come the end of the season, the potential 2 points that both teams did not gather could be life changing for either club. Last season, if Sunderland had won a couple of the games we drew before the cessation of play, we all know we would have been in the PPG based play off positions or even better. These small things are crucial to the end of season tally, and cannot be mishandled the way this has been.
Knowing the EFL will never back down by acknowledging their butchery of this duty of care, as a minimum it is crucial that our team is now given the time to clear the squad of this virus by deferring at least one or maybe 2 games. Other sides have agreed such actions with the EFL in recent days, why on earth this was too hard for the Mackems is beyond me.
Looking for positives among a total mess of a situation, thankfully we were not the only team who dropped potential points that Tuesday night.
With Lincoln and Hull both losing by the odd goal we make progress towards those, and we stay in touch with Peterborough who also drew with MK Dons away.
Portsmouth and Fleetwood drew with each other to prevent either gaining ground above or just below us, and of the teams around us only Ipswich and Accrington secured wins, putting Ipswich 4 points above us but playing one more than SAFC, and leaving the Stanley a point ahead, with 2 less games played than we have.
Thankfully we still have just about 30 games to go, and the league is still wide open, so for me the main things we need to do from this point are secure deferral of the games needed to get the squad well and non-infectious, and get back on the horse, most likely against top of the table Hull on Boxing Day.
That is another 6 pointer, as was Lincoln, and if we can do the same at home to them as we did in Lincoln less than a week ago, we are back on track and striving for the top two, via that infamous POMO...