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Portsmouth v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One

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Talking Points: Is Sunderland’s heavy defeat just a ‘bad day at the office’ or something more?

Sunderland suffered their joint worst-ever defeat at this level to Portsmouth yesterday – and, as you’d expect, there are plenty of talking points to emerge (submerge) from the game.

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Did Lee Johnson get the team selection right?

Of course, the result (our joint worst ‘third division’ result ever, technically) would suggest not, but given that the pitch was incredibly wet before the game and there was no forecast of any let up in the weather, our team selection pre-match looked incredibly risky.

And so it proved. The likes of Dajaku and Embleton simply couldn’t play anything like their normal game – we needed someone like Dan Neil in the centre of midfield to bolster our chances of controlling the game. Johnson switched to a back three at half time to try to get some semblance of control on the game, but it was too little, too late.

In hindsight, he should have selected a team for the battle, not to out-football the opposition.

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

How on earth did the game get to 90 minutes?

According to the sources I could find online, the laws of the game state that if one spot on the field is not playable, then the entire field must be declared unplayable and the game abandoned, and quite simply there were significant patches of the Fratton Park pitch that simply weren’t playable. There’s absolutely no question about that.

Quite simply, this game should never have got past half time, let alone 60 minutes. This is not a matter of debate – it should not have finished. The referee simply failed to do his job properly and absolutely bottled a decision that would have seen him get a serious amount of criticism from the home fans, players and staff. That is not a reason not to make the right decision. He was very, very lucky a player wasn’t seriously hurt.

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

Regardless of the weather and the state of the pitch, however, Sunderland simply weren’t good enough

The conditions were the same for both sides, however, and Portsmouth adapted better to them – our performance, both mentally and physically, was poor.

The conditions probably suited Portsmouth’s natural game more than ours, but the factor that decided the outcome yesterday was how much desire Portsmouth had. Sad to say, they wanted it more than we did. While they saw the conditions as a challenge to be overcome, we saw it as a hindrance to our ability to play – and that’s a concern.

We’re not going to get the ‘carpet’ we have at the SoL away from home and we’ve got to stand up, roll our sleeves up, and accept every challenge head-on. We didn’t seem to have any idea how to play the conditions, and were – almost literally – all at sea.

For a team containing our leaders – Wright, O’Nien, Evans and Flanagan – we displayed a distinct lack of leadership throughout the game. No one was willing to galvanise the team and try to get a grip on the game, and that was disappointing.

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

Do we have the League One ‘smarts’?

We’ve talked repeatedly about the benefits of having players who are potentially better than League One and can grow with the club – but that comes with some downside. In the starting line up yesterday there was only really four or five players with any decent League One experience – or any decent English footballing experience for that matter. And it showed.

Other teams would have made much more of a fuss about the state of the pitch – they’d have surrounded the referee particularly after Marquis’s second goal (before which Winchester tried to clear but the ball was held up in the water).

At that point, shouldn’t we have deliberately passed it around in the waterlogged areas? By doing that we could have forced the referee’s hand somewhat. Gamesmanship? Dark arts? Absolutely. But other teams wouldn’t hesitate to do it to us. In fact, you know Manchester United under Alex Ferguson would have done exactly that.


The post-match comments augur well

I was impressed with Lee Johnson’s post-match comments about the game – he would have been well within his rights to let the officials have it both barrels and deflect criticism from the team, but he focused on what he likely calls ‘the controllables’ – and simply we weren’t good enough. Likewise, Tom Flanagan was brutally honest about our failings, and that players should lose their place in the team because of it. It was refreshingly honest, and a good reflection of the culture inside the club.

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

Is our away form a concern?

While our record at the SoL is fantastic (six wins from six), our away record in the league has been somewhat indifferent – played four, won one, drawn one and lost two. Aside from yesterday’s game, however, I don’t think we’ve been that bad away from home, and deserve to have picked up more points on the road. The Fleetwood game should have been a convincing win, as should the Burton game. In the League Cup, however, we’ve won three out of three away from the SoL, so to say there’s a particular problem away from home is a bit premature. We’ll find out for certain this month, though – three of our next four league games are away from the SoL, and it’s going to be a big test for the lads.


Is the two-week break until the next league game a positive or negative?

Yes, we’ve got a Trophy game on Tuesday but we’ll be playing a much-changed team. In these situations, I’d always rather have another league game straight away, but perhaps the break will do us all good. It gives the players time to mull it over – some will have a change of scenery with their international set ups – and the manager and coaching staff the time to really understand who and what went wrong. We’ve got a similar away game at Gillingham next up – Wigan won 2-0 there yesterday – and hopefully they’ll be on the receiving end of a positive reaction.

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

Overall, though, this shouldn’t distract too much from an excellent start to the season

Generally, averaging two points per game will get you promoted, and we’ve accumulated 22 from 10 games so far – we’re doing well. We’ve got a young team, and they are all learning – learning about themselves as players, learning how to play professional football, learning how to play as part of a team. They’re settling into the club and the area.

This will be a massive lesson for them, and they’ll have learnt more from this than if we’d played out a nil-nil. Hopefully, they’ll harness the disappointment and – let’s face it – failings from yesterday and use it as motivation to go on another good run. Denis Smith’s 1987-88 team suffered a 4-0 reverse away at Bristol Rovers in the league (in the middle of a run of two wins from ten, incidentally) and we still went up. Yesterday won’t decide a thing.

If we average 22 points from every 10 games this season we’ll go up – simple as that. Hopefully, it just turns out to be a ‘bad day at the office’. Or at the swimming pool.

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