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Shrewsbury Town v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One

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The soft underbelly of Sunderland: Why players must look at themselves to improve performances

Throughout our time in League One, Sunderland’s soft underbelly and lack of aggression has often been our undoing. Isn’t it time the players looked at themselves in order to ensure performances improve?

Photo by Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images

The game on Tuesday at Shrewsbury can only really be described as a huge missed opportunity, particularly when you see the results that other teams near the top picked up.

When Alex Pritchard scored - and what a good goal it was, by the way - it felt like things were going to plan. When we’re struggling to create chances for our strikers, we’re going to need players to take more risks, like Pritchard did, in order to craft openings and score goals.

And heading into half time, I felt confident.

But, once David Davis was sent off and Shrewsbury dropped to ten men, I got a horrible sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, knowing that the decision made by the ref to show the midfielder a straight red was likely to change the course of the game.

Steve Cotterill’s team talk to his players will surely have been totally different as a result - we’ve seen it all before down the years, where teams change their mentality on the back of losing a player, particularly when there’s still so much of the game ahead of them.

And it probably changed Lee Johnson’s team talk too - what was important from our perspective was that we didn’t allow Shrewsbury a sniff of a chance, because if you let a team with ten men grab an equaliser, you can bet your life that they’re going to throw absolutely everything at holding on to that point.

Guess what? We failed. We let them score, and in turn, they did exactly as expected - they defended resolutely, they were organised, and they protected themselves. They wasted time, they slowed us down and they used the fact they were at a disadvantage to their advantage.

Once again, Sunderland were not streetwise enough. As has often been the case at this level, we were outbattled and effectively nullified by base-level, bog-standard defensive, timewasting tactics.

Shrewsbury Town v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by James Baylis - AMA/Getty Images

That’s on us though, and not Shrewsbury. Steve Cotterill’s instructions to his team will have been simple - to work hard, stay organised, stay together, and if you get a chance to score, take it, because if you do, we have something to hold onto.

But, when confidence is low, the pressure of conceding to a side with ten men undoubtedly weighs heavy on your shoulders.

My biggest irritation with Sunderland since we dropped into this league is that when we do lose games or draw games that we should be winning, more often than not it’s not because we’ve been outplayed, but because we’re just not savvy enough for lower league football.

We can put part of that down to the relative youth and inexperience of the side, but we have enough experience in the squad to be able to deal with such situations.

When we recruit players, we don’t tend to bring in big, rugged, seasoned lower-league players who are accustomed to rolling up their sleeves and playing a style of football that might not be pretty on the eye, but is effective and gets results.

Shrewsbury Town v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by James Baylis - AMA/Getty Images

We all know what we need in January, but unfortunately, there’s nothing we can really do about that right now. The squad we’ve got right now is the one that will have to carry us through the next six weeks or so, and that probably means we need to find a new way of playing that will be more effective in games away from home.

You can’t argue with our home record this season - we’re capable of playing a better brand of football back at the Stadium of Light, where the pitch is crisp and we have over 30,000 of our own fans behind the team.

But, away from home we look exposed. We don’t look as prepared as the other clubs challenging for the promotion places, and that’s a serious sore point.

So, how do we deal with it? Well, I’m honestly not sure.

The core of this squad has been together for much of our time in League One, and this is a problem that has plagued us constantly. The time to address it would be in January with the signing of a handful of tough guys, but even then, I just don’t see it happening.

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

There’s been plenty of criticism levelled at the manager recently - some of it justified, some of it not - but I do wonder if in criticising Johnson, we’re ignoring another crucial issue: the collective mentality of the squad, and importantly, the well-established players.

We could change the manager today, but ultimately the same issues in playing personnel will exist - these players will still have the same strengths and weaknesses.

So, let’s say he goes and they bring in another man with fresh ideas and aspirations - you might get a short-term organisational boost and upturn in results, but after the initial honeymoon period is over, I suspect we’d still be sat bemoaning our lack of solidity, and pondering over the same weaknesses of the squad in terms of application and skill.

Personally, I think the players have to look within to help find some of the answers to the questions being posed; they must ask themselves why these patterns appear whenever we find ourselves going through a period of adversity.

I don’t think there’s an obvious lack of effort, because these are some of the hardest-working players we’ve had at the club in a number of years, but it can’t be denied that there’s occasionally a switch-off mentally - and how we deal with that going forward could be the difference between promotion and another season in League One.

Sunderland v Cheltenham Town - Sky Bet League One Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

I love hearing Roy Keane talk about the standards that he used to demand of his world-class teammates back when he was the captain of one of the most successful sides in the history of English football.

Even nowadays, at Manchester United - a side littered with some of the most talented footballers in the world - people talk about their soft underbelly, and inability to deal with physicality, and sides that work hard.

Keane - arguably one of the greatest captains that the game has ever seen - would probably look at Sunderland and think that the manager could be doing more to enforce higher standards, but I think specifically he’d be looking at the more experienced players in the team to demand more of their teammates.

Liverpool v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images

There’s much been made of the leadership group established by Johnson in the summer, and this is where we need them to come to the fore. To start pointing the finger, asking questions of one another, asking questions of themselves, and demanding more.

Regardless of all the other bullshit that went on during Tuesday’s game, the lack of zip about our play in the last 15 minutes was just unacceptable. For me, we should have been throwing absolutely everything at Shrewsbury, but there was no penetration.

In truth, we made it relatively easy for them to defend against us.

So, this coming Saturday must be a show and a sign from these players and our Head Coach that we are up for the battle ahead - they need to back up all the chatter in the press and in front of the cameras with performances that have substance.

Promotion-winning teams will expect to go to places like Cambridge - who are not a bad side by any stretch, but nonetheless are a team we should be hoping to beat - and take three points. If we don’t, discontent and pressure will only rise, and nobody needs that.

It’s time to look within, and time to really buck our ideas up.

Four points from the last two games isn’t bad, but it would be nice to win another game whilst putting in a performance that reassures supporters that we’re heading in the right direction. Do that, and people might start believing again that we are a real threat.


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