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Finlay’s Report: Minging pitch, minging performance - where will Sunderland go from here?

“Tuesday’s 2-1 defeat against Plymouth is not the end of the world, but how will this impact on the Sunderland squad, heading into the next few matches?” asks RR’s Junior Reporter, Finlay Anderson.

Sunderland v Plymouth Argyle - Sky Bet League 1 Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Plymouth Argyle recorded their first league away win since February 2020, as they inflicted another blow on Lee Johnson’s Sunderland with a 2-1 victory at the Stadium of Light. Goals from Adam Lewis and Joe Edwards came either side of an Aiden O’Brien header on a tough night for the Black Cats, which saw them drop down to 9th.

The Team...

Lee Johnson made three changes to the starting eleven that claimed three points against AFC Wimbledon on Saturday afternoon. Max Power was dropped to the bench, with Dion Sanderson taking his place as right-back. Carl Winchester was provided with his first start in a Sunderland shirt, as he replaced Grant Leadbitter in midfield. Also, Jack Diamond came back into the side in the place of Elliot Embleton, who dropped to the bench. After netting a hat-trick at Plough Lane, Charlie Wyke continued to lead the line, alongside Aiden O’Brien.

Sunderland v Plymouth Argyle - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

First Half Action

Plymouth began the match as a side that looked comfortable playing away from home, despite their lack of wins on their travels. Conor Grant had Argyle’s first shot of the match, when his effort from just outside the penalty area rolled straight into the gloves of Lee Burge.

The visitors looked like the team most likely to take the one-goal advantage, and did so when Conor Grant was involved again by drilling the ball to the front post, where Adam Lewis flicked it past Lee Burge and into the bottom right corner.

After the goal, Sunderland tried to respond through Aiden O’Brien, when Diamond whipped a low cross into the penalty area, and O’Brien touched the ball goal-bound, but the Plymouth ‘keeper was able to turn it around the right post.

This set the tone for an abundance of Sunderland chances, as Wright’s down-ward header was grasped by the two hands of Michael Cooper.

The best chance of the first half from the Black Cats came from Aiden McGeady - as O’Brien fed the ball through to the Irishman, who was one-on-one with the goalkeeper, but Michael Cooper was able to turn it away from the goal.

Lee Johnson was forced into an early substitution, with Jordan Willis being removed from the heavy pitch at the Stadium of Light, as Dion Sanderson was moved into the centre of defence, and Max Power came on to slot into the right-back role.

Aiden McGeady was proving to be at the centre of the majority of Sunderland’s attacks, with his attempt just before the break being fired wide of the left post from around 20 yards out.

Lee Johnson had 15 minutes to help his players to recover and establish a plan to attempt to get back into the match, with Plymouth holding the one-goal advantage at the half time break.

Half Time - Sunderland AFC 0-1 Plymouth Argyle

Sunderland v Plymouth Argyle - Sky Bet League 1 Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Second Half Action

Within the opening five minutes, Sunderland began to step the tempo up a notch, and found their reward when Callum McFadzean dinked the ball into the centre of the box, and Aiden O’Brien nodded it into the bottom right corner.

Just as it felt like Sunderland were going to build on their equaliser, Plymouth put a spanner in the works, as Luke Jephcott slotted the ball through to the captain, Joe Edwards. Edwards carried the ball closer towards the goal and from a very tight angle was able to curl it past Lee Burge and into the roof of the net.

With the game becoming more sloppy, Lee Johnson made a double change with both Chris Maguire and Elliot Embleton being introduced into the fray, with Aiden McGeady cutting a frustrated figure as he was replaced, alongside Callum McFadzean.

The Black Cats’ frustrations were beginning to kick into their football with Power’s cross from the right wing finding O’Brien, whose flick bounced wide of the left post.

Lee Johnson made his fourth change of the match with 78 minutes on the clock, as Grant Leadbitter replaced Carl Winchester in midfield.

As the clock ticked down, Sunderland’s best chance of the second half came when the ball was lofted over the Plymouth defensive line to O’Brien, but his flick was looped over the goalkeeper and struck the bar - only for the Sunderland attacker to be ruled offside.

During the six minutes of additional time, Plymouth enjoyed keeping the ball in the corners - frustrating Sunderland, and making sure that they claimed their first three points on the road since February 2020.

Full Time - Sunderland AFC 1-2 Plymouth Argyle

Sunderland v Plymouth Argyle - Sky Bet League 1 Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Finlay’s Verdict

During promotion-winning campaigns, the candidates are always thrown different challenges in their way; whether it’s from the personnel or the characteristics of their opponents.

Only a fair few candidates have to deal with a torrid surface to play football on, and for the type of football Lee Johnson has inscribed onto this Sunderland side, the pitch at the Stadium of Light deteriorated massively over recent weeks.

For most of the build-up to kick-off, it seemed like the match was going to be called off, with some fans reiterating their focus that it shouldn’t be, otherwise it would have stopped Sunderland’s momentum from building after Saturday’s 3-0 win against AFC Wimbledon.

The condition of the pitch hasn’t just been something that cropped into focus; it was spoken about on social media after their 1-1 draw against Hull City.

It almost feels symbolic of Sunderland’s issues over the last couple of seasons, and their demise from the Premier League to England’s third tier.

Back when the Black Cats were in the Premier League, the thought of a waterlogged pitch would never have occurred at the Stadium of Light, but Sunderland are no longer in the Premier League.

Lee Johnson’s side are in promotion battle in League One, which could maybe be condensed to a play-off scrap to finish in 5th or 6th, and the privileges of being at the top level are no more.

Tuesday night’s defeat highlighted the impact that off-the-field issues may actually have on the playing squad.

There is no doubt that the pitch played a major factor during that 2-1 loss, with the excess water slowing the ball down, and making it unsuitable for Sunderland to play their football on the turf.

It resorted to the Black Cats having to play more long balls, and not work the ball direct, which ultimately benefitted the height of the Plymouth Argyle backline.

The visitors were a side that were happy to spend more time passing around the ball comfortably at the back, with a more vigorous pressing system having to be implemented from their opponents in order to force any openings.

Meanwhile, if the condition of the pitch was a distraction, there still remains a deep-rooted issue at the source of the team.

Lee Johnson is fully aware of Sunderland’s inability to score more than once at the Stadium of Light in League One.

Over recent seasons, the Stadium of Light has become a fortress during the last two seasons, but things now seemed to have reverted back to how they were in the Premier League and Championship, where the Black Cats simply can’t play to the best of their potential at the Stadium of Light.

As mentioned, Johnson is aware of this issue and will be looking to work on it, heading into a busy period of two games a week.

A 2-1 defeat against Plymouth Argyle will never symbolise the end of the world for the Black Cats; on recent form, it may just be a dent, but it will only be judged on how the Black Cats respond on Saturday against Shrewsbury Town.

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