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Sunderland v Plymouth Argyle - Sky Bet League One

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Another test passed: Sunderland are building once again

An impressive victory over Plymouth offered more evidence that Sunderland are on the right track again, which bodes well for the games to come.

Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

If recovering from setbacks and ensuring that you don’t allow external noise to derail you is the hallmark of a successful team, Sunderland are currently ticking all the right boxes as we seek to build a December run that could be pivotal to a promotion challenge.

Make no mistake, this was a victory of crucial importance, not least because it reinforced the belief (not that it was ever extinguished) that we ARE a team who can fight for a top-two berth this season.

Given the evidence of recent games, perhaps this win wasn’t a massive surprise.

During the second half against Oxford a week ago, the signs were there as we played positively without scoring. On Tuesday night versus Morecambe, we cut loose to the tune of 5-0 against an admittedly inferior opponent, which set this game up quite nicely.

Pre-match, the mood felt similar to when we played Ipswich.

Would we stumble against a useful side, or would we pass another test?

This was the kind of performance - played in a superb atmosphere - that should offer further proof that when we can put our best game on the pitch, we can be a match for any team in the division, particularly in the first half where our pressing was intense, our work rate was superb, and our attacking intent was there for all to see.

Sunderland v Plymouth Argyle - Sky Bet League One Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Despite much of the fatalistic talk in recent weeks that the squad wasn’t good enough and that Lee Johnson was doomed to fail, there has never been any suggestion that his job was in danger, or that the players are not fully behind him, and that was highlighted as every player emptied the tank and offered their absolute utmost.

Admittedly, inconsistency has been a hallmark of our season since the 4-0 defeat away at Portsmouth, but in recent weeks we have begun to emerge from the shadow of a poor run of results to thrust ourselves back into the automatic promotion race.

Yes, there have been frustrations along the way, but overall, the picture is a lot more positive than it was a few short weeks ago.

Pre-match, the naming of an unchanged game for a third successive game was interesting, partly because it was undoubtedly injury-enforced, and partly because it offered a chance for the players to continue to build combinations and partnerships with each other.

It goes without saying that Lee Johnson is currently working with a vastly diminished squad, but it is to his credit he is maximising what he does have. He has not panicked and appeared bereft of ideas, but just like he did after Portsmouth he has simply gone about his business as calmly and as stoically as he can, which is to his credit.

Sunderland v Morecambe - Sky Bet League 1 Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Encouragingly, as a team we are starting to look more and more cohesive, and individually there are plenty of players who, after reasonably slow starts to their Sunderland careers, are beginning to show their quality on a weekly basis.

On Saturday, Alex Pritchard offered further proof that he can be the difference-maker in midfield with a performance of skill and superb intelligence, Leon Dajaku - so harshly written off by lots of people two weeks ago - was a menace throughout, and Nathan Broadhead capped off a fine performance with a gloriously impudent flicked finish from a Dajaku cutback.

It was also a major boost to see Dan Neil on the scoresheet as well.

His calm finish came from a well-worked set-piece - which Johnson later credited to Jamie McAllister - barely ten minutes into the game, and at the back Callum Doyle is starting to rediscover the form he was showing early in his Sunderland career.

Negatives? Difficult to highlight many of them, but perhaps a little too much pressure was invited intermittently during the second half as we threatened to slip into ‘sit back and invite them onto us’ mode, and the clean sheet evaded us with the concession of another slack goal, during which neither Thorben Hoffmann nor Elliot Embleton covered themselves in glory, but even those points feel somewhat peripheral in the grand scheme of things.

Overall, though, this was a thoroughly satisfying ninety minutes. It proved that we ARE among this league’s frontrunners and that writing off our chances following a bad spell was premature.

With January on the horizon, there are reasons to be optimistic.

It is a good bet that targets are being identified and the recruitment team are working hard to ensure that things unfold smoothly when the window opens. The Christmas period will test us, depth-wise, but this group of players are showing impressive resilience and unity, and for now that is very, very promising.

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