First things first: Sunderland aren’t ‘being found out’, and the events of the past week certainly shouldn’t derail our season, but there’s no doubt that we’ve hit our first major bump in the Championship road.
If last weekend’s goalless draw with Preston was simply filed away as ‘one of those days’, and Tuesday night’s stalemate with Blackpool (a game during which we had a perfectly valid goal chalked off) was an example of doing all of the right things but not possessing the finishing touch, Saturday’s loss at Swansea was the kind of result where excuses couldn’t really be used.
An abject first half and a two-goal deficit was exactly what we didn’t want to have to face in South Wales, and although Jack Clarke’s well-taken second half goal added a veneer of respectability to the scoreline, the consensus was that this was a sub-par away trip, with too many players off form and a litany of sloppy errors contributing to our downfall.
Indeed, the last week represents our first real dip in form since returning to the Championship, but despite the frustration of only taking two points from nine, it doesn’t constitute a crisis quite yet.
Such is the congested nature of the table that one good result can catapult you right back into contention, and as we saw with Stoke’s victory over Sheffield United, all teams are vulnerable at some stage, and no opponent can be taken lightly.
Criticising Kristjaan Speakman is very much in vogue at the moment, but he cannot be held responsible for defensive errors, sloppy marking, and slack midfield play. Some things are beyond his remit, but on the other hand, it goes without saying that our current lack of an out-and-out striker has hindered us, and that the absences of Ross Stewart and Ellis Simms are being felt ever more keenly.
Despite the alternative system bringing an element of joy against Reading and Watford, recent games haven’t been so successful, and against a particularly compact team in Blackpool, we did struggle to make the breakthrough.
Admittedly, likes of Jewison Bennette and Amad could play there if necessary, but replacing the ultra-dynamic Stewart is nigh on impossible, and the likes of Clarke need to continue to deliver when called upon.
On the back of that, calls for us to dip into the free agent market are growing louder by the day, but I would be very surprised if another centre forward arrived on Wearside in the near future- and certainly before January- unless a real rabbit emerges from a hat.
Short-term deals don’t seem to be in line with the club’s way of operating, and it feels as though the hierarchy will simply hold their nerve, keep faith with the current squad and deal with any fallout in due course.
The good news is that ahead of Wigan, Tony Mowbray has scope to change things, particularly in the engine room, an area in which we struggled against Swansea.
Is it time to give Dan Neil a rest and opt for the energy and box-to-box presence of Jay Matete in the middle? Does Abdoullah Ba come into the equation after some impressive appearances from the bench? Also, could Alex Pritchard benefit from a game or two out of the firing line, after looking somewhat jaded in recent weeks?
It is at times like these where the decision to opt for youth and potential comes under greater scrutiny, but we mustn’t forget that these lads have already faced some stiff tests this season, and have passed many of them impressively.
The 0-3 victory over Reading, during which the potential of the team was demonstrated fully, didn’t make us the greatest team in the league, and recent results certainly haven’t turned us into a team of overawed rookies, either.
When he took the job, Mowbray would’ve doubtless understood that guiding a young squad through this league would be a journey filled with highs and lows. At the moment, we have hit something of a roadblock, but after a good week of training and preparation, Saturday’s fixture with Wigan is an ideal chance to get some forward momentum going again.