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Rotherham United v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One

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Talking Points: Just how bad was Sunderland’s performance against Rotherham?

The scoreline tells its own story, but what went wrong yesterday, and what does Lee Johnson need to do to put it right?

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

So, just how bad was that?

Let’s not sugarcoat anything. As far as performances go, that was up there with the worst we’ve seen since our desperate season in the Championship.

From the off, we looked a yard off the pace, didn’t seem willing or able to match their fitness levels, and didn’t seem to have a clue about how to stop Rotherham.

We had a nice little spell after Rotherham got their first, which resulted in Ross Stewart scoring a fine goal, and he almost got a superb equaliser – but Stewart was the lone player who showed anything yesterday. (Stewart is completely exempt from any criticism of the team that follows here, by the way.)

In our previous defeats this season we’ve had something to cling on to – Burton – we were by far the better side, Portsmouth – the pitch, Charlton - the ref. But this was different.

We just didn’t show up at all. We showed no desire to win that game. We were absolutely atrocious.

Lee Johnson after the match said we weren’t at the races. That’s being generous. We didn’t even know there was a race taking place. Abysmal. We conceded a ridiculous amount of free kicks, and handed the initiative to Rotherham – who needed little help.

It’s only the second time we’ve conceded five goals in this division (the other being that 4-5 game at home to Coventry, which ended Jack Baldwin’s Sunderland career), and in reality we got off lightly.

They looked as if they could score at any given moment, and we were lucky it was only five. It simply wasn’t good enough in any way, shape or form.

Rotherham United v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
The lads turned in an appalling performance yesterday
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Just where did Lee Johnson get his team selection wrong?

After the game, Johnson said he’d got his team selection wrong, and got the half time changes wrong and he’s right – he did.

When I saw the team selection I was very surprised – it looked lightweight. The combination of Evans, O’Nien and Neil in midfield at QPR worked well, and gave us a lot more strength in the centre of the park compared to the Charlton game – but Johnson went back to a two in the middle with three ahead of them.

I was also really surprised with the selection of Dajaku and McGeady out wide. With any sort of research into Rotherham this season (my research was limited to listening to our preview pod with Rotherham’s iFollow commentator) it was easy to understand just how important the wing backs have been for the Millers this season, and that’s where their threat comes from. And shock, horror, they caused us immense problems.

Dajaku has looked poor starting games so far this season (he looks much more of a threat coming off the bench), and McGeady’s not looked right all campaign – but regardless of form, neither offer the full backs any decent protection, and Winchester and Cirkin were badly exposed.

Rotherham United v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Lee Johnson got his team selection all wrong
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

McGeady lets the side down – but he’s not the only one

Speaking of McGeady, he cost us any remote chance of getting something out of the game with two ridiculous bookings within the space of ten minutes at the start of the second half.

He was the captain, he’s the most experienced player we’ve got, and to do what he did yesterday was bordering on the criminal. No complaints about either booking, they were both justified.

I understand he’d have been frustrated with the whole thing, but we simply cannot afford to be giving the opposition numerical advantage like that. Unbelievable.

However, while McGeady’s indiscretion was the most visible, he wasn’t the only one who let the team down – in fact, bar Ross Stewart, and perhaps subs Lynden Gooch and Corry Evans, no one will be able to look themselves in the mirror with any degree of comfort this morning.

Rotherham United v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
McGeady’s two bookings were both poor errors of judgement from a player who should know better
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

What now for Luke O’Nien in midfield?

Luke O’Nien’s midfield performances have been the subject of scrutiny this season, and have split the fan base.

I’ve got a lot of time for O’Nien – I think he’s been harshly and unfairly criticised this season – but yesterday showed the combination of O’Nien and Neil as a midfield two is far too lightweight, and needs to change. O’Nien’s best when he’s got some defensive protection behind him, and can use his energy to press and win the ball.

Yesterday, he looked lost, got a poor booking, and was rightly dragged off after 45 minutes.

As mentioned earlier, I’d have preferred we’d stuck with the three in the centre yesterday – Evans, Neil and O’Nien – but if Johnson is intent on going with a two it’s got to be Evans plus one. And that one should be Dan Neil.

Regardless, we need midfield reinforcement come January – we seriously lack numbers in there, and the options we’ve got lack pace and strength.

This has got to be rectified.

Rotherham United v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
The two man centre midfield is failing to get the best out of O’Nien – is it time for a rethink?
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

What needs to change?

We’ve got a big opportunity to bounce back in another big away game on Tuesday, and Lee Johnson will no doubt be looking around to see what changes he can – and should – make.

I think Fred Alves has to come strongly into the equation after that defensive performance. Flanagan and Doyle – for all of the plaudits this season – have struggled against big centre forwards. Lynden Gooch and Corry Evans will also start. I would expect all three to be in the first eleven against Wednesday.

I’ve read calls for Burge to be recalled in place of Hoffmann, which I just don’t see at all. Yes, Hoffmann was poor yesterday, but we’ve already seen his ability and potential is streets ahead of Burge, and changing a keeper after one bad game would be a sign Johnson is floundering.

We clearly need to revert to the three in midfield, rather than the two he played yesterday, and I’d have Embleton and Gooch playing in the wider areas behind Stewart – McGeady will be missing through suspension, but regardless both him and Dajaku offered little going forwards or defensively.

Unfortunately. until Nathan Broadhead and Niall Huggins return, we don’t have the ability to make many more meaningful changes – so the players really need to step up and show the character and desire that was sadly absent yesterday.

Rotherham United v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Big decisions lie ahead for Lee Johnson
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Perspective is important, however

Yes, yesterday was awful – and yes, we’ve now lost three of our last five league games.

However, we are still going at the crucial two points per game ratio, and if we win our games in hand we’d be joint top. Easier said than done of course, but it illustrates that, overall this season, we’ve done well. The way we go about games means we’ll generally win or lose, rather than draw matches.

We’ve shown a lot of promise in spells, and this is the sort of result and performance the younger players need to learn a hell of a lot from. Hopefully, they will.

We need a response on Tuesday night – the next few days will be very interesting indeed.

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