For Sunderland, this was an all-too-familiar storyline.
On an icy-cold, grey afternoon, injury-hit Sunderland mostly dominated the contest against an Oxford team unbeaten in the last six, but lacked a cutting edge in the final third – and were ultimately punished for that.
As a result, there was an overriding air of disappointment and frustration at the full-time whistle – but also some satisfaction from the improved display.
The Black Cats produced a significantly better display than their previous home match against Ipswich. They pressed high and found good spaces – but lacked an end-product.
That, added to the mistake from Lynden Gooch, meant that the spoils were shared on a day where a win would have taken Sunderland joint-top of the league.
In truth, a point against one of the league’s in-form sides is one that Sunderland fans may have been content with pre-match, but given the way the game panned out, it’s disappointing not to have taken all three points.
With the Black Cats’ injury crisis, Lee Johnson was forced to name the same side that beat Cambridge only a week earlier – and the team started the game in a positive fashion.
Oxford held and maintained high levels of possession within the opening minutes of the match but lacked purpose – and it was Sunderland that drew first blood.
Pritchard picked the ball up inside the Sunderland half before driving forward and slipping it through to Leon Dajaku. The on-loan winger shifted the ball past Anthony Forde onto his left foot before smashing it into the bottom right corner.
It was a somewhat surprising opening, during which Oxford were second-best – but they were unbeaten in six coming into this one, and they began to show why.
Karl Robinson’s side looked dangerous with the space being afforded on the right-wing due to Leon Dajaku’s high role, but failed to capitalise on this opportunity.
Both Gavin Whyte and Luke McNally had their efforts blocked, and just as Oxford were beginning to dominate, they were gifted an equaliser with 36 minutes on the clock.
Lynden Gooch was dispossessed just outside the penalty area, close to the by-line, by Nathan Holland, who was afforded time and space inside the 18-yard box, with Gooch appealing for the foul. Holland cut the ball back to Matt Taylor, who simply rolled it into the bottom right corner.
Sunderland needed a response, and with the atmosphere inside the Stadium of Light becoming tenser, the Black Cats pushed for the lead just before the interval and had appeals for a penalty waved away, despite Winchester’s cross being blocked by what looked like the arm of Cameron Brannagan.
Lee Johnson’s half-time team-talk clearly had a positive effect as Sunderland looked more dangerous and more calm and relaxed within possession.
They dominated for much of the second half, but the script followed a similar story for much of the second period – they just couldn’t find the golden touch.
Ross Stewart tried to put Sunderland back into the lead, but his effort after Dajaku’s cut-back was side-footed against the crossbar before Carl Winchester’s follow-up effort was curled just around the right post.
The introduction of Elliot Embleton altered the system for Lee Johnson’s side, as the Black Cats moved to a back four, which enabled the home side to pile more pressure upon the Oxford backline.
Sunderland looked even more threatening in the final third, as Pritchard’s cross was deflected into the path of Gooch, who unfortunately arrowed his effort just over the crossbar.
Oxford’s only notable effort of the second half came from a Sunderland mistake, as yet again, Dan Agyei picked up Lynden Gooch’s back-pass, but his left-footed shot was fired into the gloves of Thorben Hoffmann.
From then, Sunderland pushed bodies forward but couldn’t find the back of the net.
Broadhead had the best of their later efforts, as he launched a right-footed effort wide of the right post before rattling his volley against the crossbar after good play from Alex Pritchard.
The Black Cats maintained their high press and momentum within the final stages of the contest, but despite long punts forward, they couldn’t find the breakthrough and were left to rue missed opportunities yet again.
And, it’s that phrase that is frustrating Sunderland fans post-match. ‘Yet again’, Sunderland failed to capitalise on their game in hand. ‘Yet again’, Sunderland failed to convert their chances into goals. And ‘yet again’, Sunderland failed to hold their nerve in defensive situations.
But, still, there were positives to take, and Sunderland fans should be optimistic about the weeks ahead and the festive period.
The Black Cats were visibly better than in recent weeks and gave fans something to make them get out of their seats. They pressed high, maintained a high intensity in periods, looked dangerous in the final third – but struggled to find their rewards.
It leaves Sunderland fans with both optimism and pessimism heading into the remainder of this big week for the club. Morecambe and Plymouth are both ahead in League One at home, and Sunderland will need big performances to ultimately claim results, which are more important at this stage of the season.
With the festive period approaching and the club’s injury situation the way it is, it’s going to be a period that’s going to be extremely tiring for this shortened crop of players, and the Black Cats are going to have to learn to grind out results as soon as possible.