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Plymouth Argyle v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One

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Talking Points: Sunderland find attacking verve against Plymouth just in time for play-offs

Sunderland’s swaggering win away at Plymouth Argyle has hopefully raised spirits ahead of the nerve-shredding play-offs

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Sunderland’s swashbuckling attacking performance must surely raise spirits ahead of the play-offs?!

I discussed on Wednesday, following Sunderland’s bitterly disappointing defeat to Blackpool, the idea that Sunderland were lacking in belief and energy in a way we’d not really seen often under Lee Johnson. Everything was just a bit slow and lethargic against Blackpool, until Ross Stewart’s introduction added some belated urgency to our game.

Fortunately, today was the antithesis of Tuesday’s automatic promotion hangover. From the moment Stewart raced away and calmly put the Black Cats ahead, there was a genuine sense of urgency and intent in our attacking.

The front four of Stewart, Jordan Jones, Lynden Gooch and Jack Diamond were rampant. It felt like any time Johnson’s men crossed the halfway line Plymouth were in peril. Sunderland rained down 24 shots at Home Park, for reference our season average, according to Whoscored, is 13.8 per game.

It’s our second highest amount of shots in a League One match all season, only trailing our maddening draw at home to Bristol Rovers. It felt like there was a palpable sense of relief when our lanky, deputising marksman slotted home.

Once the deadlock was opened, we saw an exciting, dynamic Sunderland again. There was a mix of energy, pace and purposeful pressing and attacking. Those 24 shots don’t account for bad passes made in the final third, with marginally better decision-making this game could have been a rout.

It’s worth noting Plymouth were accommodating opponents though, they willingly gave Sunderland the sort of open, you attack, we attack type of game, that’s always best suited the team in League One. It’s hard to imagine there’ll be as much space and opportunities for our forwards to play one-on-one in the heightened, typically cagey atmosphere of the play-offs.

Plymouth Argyle v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Lee Johnson will be doubt be relieved to have got the win at Plymouth Argyle
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Ross Stewart proves he can contribute

Since his dream debut away at Accrington Stanley, bagging an important goal in an awkward fixture. It’s fair to say Stewart has underwhelmed in limited minutes prior to today.

His partnership with Wyke away at Portsmouth didn’t really work in an attacking sense, the pair lacked chemistry and quality on the day. The Scotsman was legitimately dreadful last weekend against Accrington too. Which makes his success today all the sweeter.

It wasn’t just is ice-cold finish from a tight angle. It was the relentless pressure he put on Ryan Lowe’s backline and his dominance in the air that impressed. He linked up well with our dovetailing trio of nippy forwards and did a great job creating space for the likes of Jones and Gooch.

Wyke’s monster goal return means his position in the team is secure, providing he overcomes the injury that forced him to sit out today’s match. But Stewart has shown in the last two matches he can be an effective, forceful weapon at this level. Plus, having a mobile giant to throw on in the final 30 minutes of a play-off game can’t hurt.

Plymouth Argyle v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Stewart does the business...
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

How do you make sense of Sunderland’s forward ‘problem’?

Johnson has the cliched ‘good problem to have’ when it comes to deciding who starts in attack for Sunderland. League One all-stars Charlie Wyke and Aiden McGeady (if fit) are no-brainer starters. Meaning we’re looking at two starting spots available for: Gooch, Jones, Diamond, Aiden O’Brien and Chris Maguire. It could even just be one slot if the head coach needs to switch to 4-3-3 during the play-offs.

Gooch was excellent today in two positions. He was superb as a second striker in the first half, using his pace, deceptive physicality and trickery one-on-one to terrorise Argyle. The American international was so good playing centrally, that I was genuinely disappointed when Maguire’s introduction meant he had to move out wide. I shouldn’t have worried, as soon after Gooch won the penalty, that sealed the win. He did nothing but torment the Plymouth left-back for the final 25 minutes of the game.

Whilst Stewart and Gooch were the story, Diamond and Jones’ contributions shouldn’t be overlooked. Diamond overcame a woeful first 15 minutes to remind Sunderland fans of his unique skillset. Diamond’s pace meant he seemed to be first to every 50-50, his dribbling ability at speed remains ridiculous, and with slightly better decision-making from him and his teammates we could have been talking about a performance capped with goals and assists.

Jones might be the most talented player available to Johnson. Today he was overshadowed by Sunderland’s other forwards, but still produced clever set pieces and led lightning fast breaks. His potential to make the difference in the play-offs shouldn’t be overlooked.

My guess is Gooch, Wyke and McGeady start, with the final spot coming down to Jones, O’Brien and Carl Winchester depending on formation. But all of Sunderland’s front four enhanced their chances of starting in a relentless attacking display.

Plymouth Argyle v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Was it ever in doubt who would step up to take that penalty?
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Is Sunderland’s defence improving?

My main reservations heading into the play-offs revolve around Sunderland’s centre-backs. Bailey Wright’s struggles since returning from injury, combined with O’Nien’s lack of experience and undisciplined approach to football, have been a constant concern.

O’Nien’s understandable struggles to adapt to a new position were costing the team points, before the excellent Dion Sanderson was forced out of the team with a back injury. Since Sanderson has been unavailable, it has felt like our promotion hopes were lost.

It wasn’t solely Wright and O’Nien’s fault that we conceded five goals in two games against Hull City and Accrington Stanley, but the lack of understanding, sharpness and intelligent defending between the pair of them, hurt the team badly.

Even considering the fact Sunderland conceded and the acknowledging that it took a late, late goal from Maguire to secure the points against ten men. This was still a second game in a row where there were large sections of the game where the Wright-O’Nien partnership looked comfortable (I stand by my criticism of Wright against Blackpool, but most of his bad moments came when the Black Cats were chasing the game).

In my opinion Sunderland’s promotion hopes hinge on Johnson’s ability to find a halfway competent defence in games that matter. Today gave me a sliver of hope that that type of defence might be possible starring O’Nien and Wright in central roles.

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