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Sunderland v Burnley - Sky Bet Championship

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Editorial: Progress is rarely a straight line – just look back over the past three seasons

But, should we be making more of our set pieces?

Photo by Alex Dodd - CameraSport via Getty Images

Twelve months ago, we were pulling apart a 1-0 home defeat to Charlton in League One (including another refereeing debacle). A side containing Thorben Hoffmann, Aiden O’Brien, Tom Flanagan, Carl Winchester and Aiden McGeady went down to Jayden Stockley’s goal and alarm bells that began to ring after the 4-0 defeat at Portsmouth a couple of weeks earlier began to sound again.

On the same weekend back in 2020, Phil Parkinson’s side lost 3-1 to Pompey at the Stadium of Light – Josh Scowen, Max Power, Lee Burge, Denver Hume and Chris Maguire all started the game, with Will Grigg and Danny Graham coming off the bench.

Twelve months before that, a team containing Burge, Hume, George Dobson, Joel Lynch, Power, Grigg and Maguire lost Parkinson’s third game in charge, 1-0 away at Shrewsbury.

This Saturday’s game at home to Burnley was a gutting one in the end, there’s no getting away from it. First half, however, we looked really comfortable against a team that’s surely going to go straight back up.

Shrewsbury Town v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Good times
Photo by James Baylis - AMA/Getty Images

Despite our lack of strikers, we went two up, and Vincent Kompany said after the game that, in the first half, we were the best they’ve faced this season.

And, in the moment, it’s massively frustrating that we couldn’t manage the game out. Defensively we looked poor in the second half; our midfield didn’t take control of the game and Burnley scored with every shot on target they had.

Could Mowbray have made changes earlier? Changed the structure of the team? Absolutely he could have, and in hindsight, probably should have.

Twelve months ago, while we were pulling the bones out of a home defeat to Charlton, Burnley were busy drawing 2-2 away at Southampton in the Premier League. Six of the players who started that game for them featured on Saturday.

And I think it’s important to take a step back at all of this – something that’s a lot easier to do on a Monday than in the immediate aftermath of the game.

We’re heading in the right direction. Over the past two seasons, our squad’s improved immensely. It’s full of potential. Two years ago, Dobson, Lynch, Grigg and Power – led by Phil Parkinson, a manager whose alleged accomplishment of keeping Colchester in the championship (which it turned out he didn’t actually do) we heralded as his high point.

Today, Patrick Roberts, Jack Clarke, Jewison Bennette and Dennis Cirkin led by Tony Mowbray, a manager who established Blackburn back in the Championship and has experience of winning the Championship, too.

Of course, Saturday’s defeat was disappointing. And just because we are heading in the right direction doesn’t mean we shouldn’t scrutinise things because continuing on that path isn’t guaranteed. Our run of one win in eight is concerning.

However, progress is rarely a straight line – there are always ups and downs – and compared to one, two and three years ago, the progress is clear to see. We’re heading in the right direction, and long may that continue.


Set pieces – are we missing a trick?

We’re the only club in the Championship not to have scored from a set piece this season, and given our lack of striking options, free kicks and corners around the box seem as if they should be even more important – given you can create routines around them to work space for a clear strike at goal. We saw some excellent set plays under Lee Johnson – coached by his assistant Jamie McAllister – and we got a good few goals from them.

Sunderland v Queens Park Rangers - Sky Bet Championship
QPR showed earlier in the season what a difference having good set piece taker can make

Which is why I was taken aback by Tony Mowbray’s answer to a question posed about set pieces in his press conference in midweek. Are you working on set pieces in training, given you’ve not scored from one all season and the lack of goals? The answer was no, because we’ve only got Danny Batth who we can aim at, so we’re just trying to take them quickly.

That doesn’t stack up for me – it seems a really obvious thing for us to be trying to maximise. Good teams get a decent amount of goals from set pieces, and to effectively not bother because Danny Batth’s the only person we can aim a long ball at seems as if we really are missing a trick here.


Strikers back in fashion

As a former local-league striker, I’m enjoying the new-found appreciation of strikers that has been found not only at Sunderland but throughout football this season.

Of course, I wish we hadn’t been so exposed to it over the past couple of months, but after a few seasons of Manchester City playing without ‘proper’ strikers it’s been good to see Haaland show just what a ‘proper’ striker can do.

I’ve always held the opinion that keeper and striker are the two most important positions to have right in the team. Good strikers just have the instinct to find space; a desire to score goals and aren’t hesitant to take on a shot when they get even half a chance.

Our shots-on-target stats since Ross Stewart’s been sidelined just show what we’re lacking, and hopefully, with Ellis Simms due back in training this week we’ll see what a genuine striker can add to our team sooner rather than later.

Sunderland v Rotherham United - Sky Bet Championship
Can’t wait to get Stewart back on the field – but the club needs to invest in strikers in the next couple of windows to avoid this situation occurring again
Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Mowbray’s had a rough hand so far – he’s only had one game with Stewart fit, and two games with Simms. It’s not a time to judge him – I think any manager would have struggled without strikers. Hopefully, the Sunderland hierarchy have a slightly different perspective on the importance of strikers too, and add another couple in January.

There’s no excuse for being caught short again. And, with only Alex Bass backing up Patterson, we probably need some additional strength there, too…


The referee’s a... decent one, actually

And finally, a word for Saturday’s referee. Tim Robinson, his name was. I had to look it up, and that’s a very good sign. After weeks of bemoaning the standards of refereeing in the Championship and being subject to the awful displays we’ve seen recently, it’s only fair to acknowledge Mr Robinson, who keeps the game flowing, got involved only when needed, and remained in the background. More of the same, please, refs.

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