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Through the Sunderland AFC Keyhole: A side simply not good enough or a soft touch tactically?

Everyone’s cup final? Or just there for the taking? Three seasons in League One has left Ian Bendelow wondering exactly why Sunderland are becoming increasingly easy to get a result against.

Almost derelict Stadium of Light. Photo by Dave Howarth/EMPICS/PA Images via Getty Images

Fans of daytime TV in the 1980s and 90s will remember Through the Keyhole, a light-hearted romp through the knicker drawers, fridges and airing cupboards of the rich and famous. It was presented by transatlantic sauce-man Lloyd Grossman and was like gold dust to the curtain twitchers of this world. Yes it’s had a revamp recently with Keith Lemon, but to me the original was always the best.

At times, it feels like Sunderland’s problems should be analysed in a similar way; if you look at the clues closely, you should be able to get the right answer. However, if the club did feature on Through the Keyhole, it would probably resemble a Barratt show home: neat and tidy but very easy to make an impression on. Remi Matthews would be the plastic fruit in the kitchen.

Over the last two and a half seasons, there’s been no shortage of managers who have pushed the line SAFC has on paper the strongest squad in the division. Most recent purveyor of this opinion was Steve Evans, right before his side dominated their way to a point at the SOL. Of the 108 matches Sunderland have played since dropping into the third tier, a whopping 41 of them have seen the spoils shared, and under half have been victories. That is not good enough.

Shrewsbury Town v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

Is it the result of a lack of ability, or because of a lack of tactical acumen? Well, let’s take a look at the evidence:

It has become clear for some time, given the nature of the league, that the route to getting what you want out of the game is as much down to brute force as it is anything else. Long balls and agricultural challenges are to be expected.

The most frustrating thing though - time-wasting - has been produced on the sort of industrial scale you’d think it was a COVID-19 vaccine.

The result of this? An alarming inability to drive the flow of a game, and force the team’s style of play on the opposition, rather than vice versa. Taking control of a match from the off would stop ridiculous time-wasting at its source.

Under Jack Ross, the propensity to concede the first goal at home was somewhat of a running joke. With the exception of Coventry at least a point was always salvaged, but it shouldn’t come to this.

Further down the line on our League One odyssey, the inability to see games out has been costly. Doncaster and Gillingham this season have been bigger signposts to the prospects of a side than anything else so far.

However, it’s not just about conceding late, but also at the first opportunity. Although defensively the side is in League One terms quite solid, and gives up few chances, it is often the case that the first proper test in a game is failed. See, for example, Burton and Wimbledon at home.

And of course the crowning turd in the water pipe, the goalkeeping errors; none more so than Tuesday night. At this rate, the 20 on the back of Matthews’ shirt will represent not just his squad number but the amount of points our men between the sticks will cost us this season.

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

Sunderland are ultimately finding new and tropical ways to not win matches. Games have morphed from dominant draws into scrappy draws, lucky draws and narrow defeats. It’s not a good look, and it stinks of a club continuing to go backwards.

The above factors are all different, but interlinked. While this is a team with ability, the players believe on this basis alone they will succeed. Opposition teams clearly know they can override this through winning the tactical and often mental battle.

If you look at the current league table, teams who have got it right tactically jump out at you - Lincoln, Doncaster and Accrington. Perhaps not the best sides on paper, but the way they set up mean they are currently achieving more than the sum of their parts.

Shortly after being appointed as manager, Johnson said that because of the style of play he wanted to implement, there wouldn’t be many draws. Well, 12 games and five draws later it seems that Sunderland AFC are having more of an influence on him rather than the other way round. If this side is to achieve the goals so many of the squad think they are capable of, this has to change.

Perhaps the biggest indicator of how teams view us is the Roker Report opposition fan focus previews thatappear on this website ahead of each game. Two years ago we’d see predictions of defeats, or maybe sneaking a draw. Now, disgracefully, opponents regularly seem to believe they can beat the mighty Sunderland. A total lack of respect, obviously, but nonetheless indicative of our place in the world.

For more than a decade this club has declined, year on year. Right now it feels like there is a gargantuan David and Goliath battle to turn this oil tanker around. The squad needs to realise that although managers are quick to say this is the strongest squad in the division, they are doing it in the hope that the team will believe it; the truth is, it is complete and utter fiction.

So, as Lloyd might say: Lee - it’s over to you.

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