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Talking Points: Sunderland’s issues against Bristol Rovers stem from Phil Parkinson

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The Lads dropped two points in an eminently winnable league opener on Saturday. However, conservative selections, reactive substitutions and turgid tactics were the root cause of the teams’ issues.

Sunderland v Bristol Rovers - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Getty Images

Lack of Discipline

Sunderland could easily have ended up down to nine men on Saturday afternoon, with George Dobson seeing a late red – but Bailey Wright could also consider himself lucky to not have seen an earlier red card too.

Wright struggled with the pace and guile of Rovers’ new signing Brandon Hanlan running him ragged for most of the first hour. The former Gillingham man has a 1 in 7 scoring record, so he was never going to be a major threat in front of goal, but his work rate, pace and movement caused a myriad of problems for the Australian international.

Pointing him out alone seems somewhat unfair, with the lads in general committing far too many fouls – most likely borne out of the frustration of conceding such a needless early goal. Dobson’s red in actuality may be a blessing in disguise – most raised eyebrows at the initial team selection was that he was picked ahead of Josh Scowen, and if not for the red he would’ve played the full match despite clearly struggling all game.

Sunderland v Harrogate Town - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Tactical Problems

Phil Parkinson lined the lads up in what initially seemed to be a regular 3-4-1-2 as we had seen at Hull a week earlier, with Chris Maguire in a free role behind the strikers.

However, on the day Parky had changed up his flat two as we had seen in just about every game since moving to a back three, to a vertically staggered midfield partnership.

Dobson would sit deep and collect the ball, while Max Power was clearly told to push into the left channel. This was clearly a tactical decision due to the sheer quantity of times he would make the same run, until the change to a conventional 4-4-2.

Instead of exposing gaps in the away sides’ defence, however, this merely exacerbated Sunderland’s own issue in building up play and hampered our ability to play possession football. At best, for the first hour the two midfielders were 30 yards apart in most attacks, and George Dobson just did not have the quality to deal with facing up against three midfielders largely on his own.

Then when Max Power actually got on the ball he would usually be occupying spaces others would be in too, it just isn’t his role, and he didn't know what to do. Only when Parky changed it to a more conventional midfield two and when Rovers sat back did we start to dictate the game and stop going long over the midfield at every opportunity.

To revert to long-ball football after spending all of pre-season playing measured, controlled football was a huge mistake on Parkinson’s end, and was the chief reason as to why the rest of the team looked disjointed in possession and prone to counter-attacks from Rovers’ quick front line.

Sunderland v Hull City - Carabao Cup First Round Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Reactive Substitutions

Just like last week, Phil Parkinson left changes until far too late in the game, and once again the wrong people were introduced. The changes of Wyke and Graham for the two strikers did make sense, with the lads struggling all game to cope with Bristol’s deep balls into the box in set pieces.

However, when Will Grigg and Aiden O’Brien were on the pitch, they were constantly fed with long balls, and we only switched this up to play shorter once the two big men were on the pitch. It worked in getting a goal back, but just didn’t add up.

The biggest issue, however, was not substituting Dobson.

He needed to go off at half time, ideally, and at least before the hour mark. Our set pieces were wasteful, we needed fresher legs and a more experienced head in the middle of the park, and Josh Scowen’s feisty nature and style of play would have suited that game to a tee. Then on top of that were the sublime quality of his set piece deliveries which bamboozled a young Villa side in midweek.

Dobson was a walking disaster. There is no point debating whether or not his sending off was the right decision, as it only came from the fact he could neither complete a simple 10 yard pass out wide, nor have the vision or ability to spot a free man in the box further up the pitch. In short, his sending off was borne entirely from his own lack of ability.

Gateshead v Sunderland: Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Hume’s Directness

Denver Hume’s final ball was erratic all game, but it remains that he is at times our greatest attacking weapon purely through his pace and ability to stretch a defence alone.

For most of the game he was the only one willing to either get in behind or attack their defence from deep. I don’t want to highlight Hume’s final ball here, but instead focus on what he can bring to the team.

However, the biggest take from the match at the weekend is that Phil Parkinson has now been given a full transfer window to sort the biggest glaring issue in the squad: the lack of pace. Hume stands out like a sore thumb as he is the only man in the 18 who has genuine pace & that is key in League One. Parkinson has identified this issue in press conferences previously, but has still once again decided not to address this issue.

I understand these players do not come cheap and the salary cap changed all our summer plans – but to only have one player with genuine blistering pace in a league in which pace merchants thrive is absolutely criminal.

90% of our issues on Saturday have stemmed from the manager, and I’m honestly not sure he has the ability to change in his stubborn, conservative nature.

The most galling statistic that popped up in the wake of this draw is Parkinson’s own record in charge of the lads: 33 games in charge, 12 wins, 11 draws and 10 defeats.

So much for our “100 points season” eh.