Different match. Same frustrating outcome.
It’s a tale as old as time itself. An England batting collapse. A Luke Edwards Twitter meltdown in the face of irate Mags. An out-of-the-blue Sunderland defensive error that costs the side two points.
Four seasons now Sunderland have been in this league, and the truth is, it’s the constant thorn in their side that no manager or set of players have yet looked like they might solve once and for all.
It’s natural for fans to focus on what their side does with the ball - assessing the offensive aspect of the game rather than defensive. And on that front there shouldn’t be much to take issue with. Some of the attacking play on display this season would be worthy of a much higher level and has been a joy to behold.
However, it’s about what Sunderland do off the ball which is giving cause for concern. You only need to measure in days the amount of time you have to go back to recall defensive errors that have proved costly. Failure to defend one last corner at Wycombe, a Flanagan missed interception against Lincoln, a Gooch air shot later in the same game and a repeat missed interception from Flanagan against Accrington on Saturday.
He never buggers up when we’re five goals to the good against Cheltenham, does he?
This isn’t bad luck, it’s not a one in a million chance, and it’s not something you can train out of players, or legislate for as Johnson says. Simply put, better players don’t make those kinds of mistakes in the first place. As such there is only one conclusion: the solution to Sunderland’s problems lie outside of the club, through player acquisitions.
What is happening is not a coincidence. Flanagan has been a good servant and is a strong voice in the dressing room, but he cannot do it on his own - and he cannot be trusted for 46 games a season. Currently, 18-year-old Callum Doyle is the most accomplished centre back in the side. This isn’t what promotion teams are built on. And while the fact Doyle is performing very well of late, he needs someone else to help with the heavy lifting.
It’s almost universally held that Sunderland need another centre back, a commanding central midfielder (who can stay fit), and a striker to support Ross Stewart. But what does that all add up to? A spine of the team. And this is what this squad lacks. It has done for years now, and for all the superb attacking play we have demonstrated this season, failure to have bite, brawn and wherewithal in the key central departments of the team will mean that this side is destined to be what it has been for too long: nearly men.
It’s happened too many times this campaign and beyond where the Black Cats have failed to navigate the choppier waters of the game. This year alone you can count four or five examples of this which has ultimately cost Lee Johnson’s men, going all the way back to Fleetwood in September.
If Portsmouth play John Marquis next week against a back line who traditionally don’t do well against physical players, then there may be trouble. Could dropping Flanagan and moving Wright across be the answer before new blood arrives?
Johnson doesn’t change the system or personnel or introduce new signings lightly, as we have seen with Trai Hume, where he would rather we remain unbalanced than blood inexperience – and in a way that is fair enough. However times like these call for a risk because otherwise Sunderland’s weaknesses are too easy to highlight and they are too easy to play against.
All the good that has been done at this club over the last few months must not be undermined by individual errors. It’s nothing personal, and ultimately after four years of this we really do know our limitations, but Johnson and the team will be big enough to know it has to be fixed once and for all.
One thing is for sure – Sunderland have to strengthen, or it will be the playoffs.