The morning after a game like Saturday’s is for me the best time to consider what we can take from such a performance and the related result.
The blood pressure has eased a bit, the anger and frustration have ebbed away. The passing of a bit of time and a decent night’s sleep allow more perspective, which can help us Sunderland fans during such challenging weekends, whether we write our thoughts down and share them or not.
Despite the complaints about throwing away a two goal half time lead, which are valid in many ways, one of the main positive things I got from that first half against Burnley was that we really can play anyone in this league when we play well and get our setup right, and our players clicking. When you consider that changes were forced in defence with the loss of Alese, we were very very solid and very impressive in the first half.
Hume came in at right back and did very well too with some lovely, thumping and at times critical tackles. It was like he’d always been involved. There was not a single shot on target for Burnley in the first 45 which is a real testament to how we played that opening half of the match; from the goalie to the attackers we were spot on. The gaffer was too, with our setup and our approach to the game. OK, that changed later, but I will come to that.
The second positive point I would cite would be the very well taken goals from Amad and Neil, both scored within 5 minutes of each other around the middle of the first half.
We played some very well worked football for the opener, and though it was a bit opportunistic for the second, Dan Neil did well to take that chance when it came up. In my view we often are not clinical enough when opportunities come up… to be fair that should be no surprise with the dearth of strikers since Reading.
In general play, again as shown in the first period, we are starting to look better and better at pressing high, finding space and preying on errors to win the ball and create chances.
We do have the right to be happy that we made those goals happen; they were not given to us, and we did that against a team only just dropped out of the Premier League, and without Stewart or Simms.
Nobody in this division has scored more than one goal against Burnley when Burnley have played away from home this season. That’s a stat not to be sniffed at.
The third positive takeaway is that the lads tried to have a go even when we were tactically outthought and struggling. People may forget in the red mist of the result that, despite Burnley being way stronger second half, we were very much still in it at 2-1. We launched a great counter attacking move on 57 minutes after some sustained pressure was briefly relieved. Pritchard, Amad and Clarke combined really well, but this time the square ball to Amad wasn’t struck well by the Man Utd loanee, and we missed out on going 3-1 up. As mentioned before, sometimes we simply aren’t clinical enough, though I’m sure that getting his first SAFC goal will help Amad a lot in upcoming games.
We also had a great chance on 63 minutes, shortly after they had pegged us back to 2-2, when Clarke beat the offside trap.
All he could manage was a powerful shot too close to the keeper. If that was Ross Stewart, we were ahead for me, likely with a typical firm shot drilled across the keeper into the far corner. We will never know what either chance may have done to the outcome.
While taking positives from the match, for balance we also have to acknowledge the bad stuff.
The set piece police came around again and confirmed we are close to criminal when challenged with a decent high ball into the box. It was a pretty soft goal from Burnley’s effort on 50 minutes, it has to be said. Our defender (I think it was Evans) lost his man, and with that and our back line being dominated aerially in general, Tella (who we kept very quiet in the first half) took a simple short range header just in front of Luke O’Nien.
Immediate thoughts? I can’t wait to get Ballard and Alese back… we really need both those lads given the issues with set pieces and our terrible lack of defensive height. We are struggling with defending even mediocre balls driven into our box. In comparison, we had 2 corners, took them both short, and wasted them. We simply have to work more on increasing the height and stature of our squad, and on finding a way to defend set pieces while we do that, as those player additions are not going to happen overnight. The lack of defensive height disappointed us again just after the hour when another decent (but by no means world class) ball was fired in toward the penalty spot, dipping as it went.
No defenders attacked it, and all the attackers also missed it.
Sadly Patterson did too, making it 2-2.
The annoying thing we have to honestly reflect on is that both of Burnley’s goals to draw level were down to the very basics. If we had more height in the team especially at the back but even in general, both the first two goals for Burnley would have been way less likely to happen. In some ways it feels like we have got much better at the complicated trickery at this level, as demonstrated by our Reading team goal winning goal of the month, but we have either forgotten or neglected some of the foundations that a solid game is built on.
Looking at the bench, the only defender we had available was Bailey Wright. Is he good enough to add height and enough pace/ability to make a difference at this level against this opponent? Should we maybe have gone to a back three with Wright, Batth and Cirkin, and used other players to take a wing back approach seeing the dominance Burnley had established with their tweak in shape over team talks and oranges?
For me, adding that height into the box mattered even more given we failed to react to the changed tactics of the opponents. Problems with the options we had available were brought about by injury impacted squad depth too, but in this case a lack of action from the coaching staff to recognise the issues and amend our setup to mitigate them was a huge part of our demise in that second 45.
The other area which leaves questions and doubts in my mind would be the way our subs were used to affect the game. In short, they didn’t really make much sense to me.
They started around the 65th minute when Tony and his coaching team first attempted to change the game (arguably later than ideal given we were 2-2 at that point) by taking Pritchard off for Bennette.
It was already clear that Burnley had the 2nd half jump on us tactically, hence I was quite surprised when Mowbray swapped out one of the most creative players on the pitch for a semi-unproven young lad to go up front. His thoughts may have been that if we add another attacker we could pin Burnley back and ease the pressure that way, but for me the changes were needed in defence way more than attack. What do I know though?
When Mowbray then subbed Evans off for Michut on 74 minutes, I was even more confused. By this time we were already 3-2 down and were losing the midfield battle, and really struggling out wide too. My expectation was that we would reinforce the midfield and maybe change shape at the back to counteract the advantage that ex-City legend Kompany had gained in the break. Could we not have added in Matete in the middle to aid Evans rather than swapping control in the middle for flair?
We may well have done some of the things myself and others have suggested and still lost, there is no knowing, but what I do think we have to remember is that some teams just have more quality and depth than we do right now, and that is both to be expected and something we have to accept. That is most likely the case when facing recently demoted ex-Premier League teams like Burnley.
While we were nowhere near as good in the second half as the first, we also need to remember that Burnley scored a screamer to take the lead, with which Patto had no chance (as was the case with Brereton-Diaz in the Blackburn away game).
Yes, we hadn’t come back out after oranges on Saturday, and we lost the midfield/defensive battle tactically. We were outthought and pinned back, and we had salt rubbed in our wounds when Dan Neil made a late mistake, gifting them a 4th with a few mins of normal time to go. Nearly 40k turned out to watch us play very well for 45m but then lose a 2 goal lead. A game of 2 halves, as this beautiful sport is often termed.
So, looking at all those up and downsides from a 6 goal game not ending in our favour, what do we need to do with the learnings we have taken? My view is the needs are the same as most fans have been saying for some time. It comes down to what we know, and what the club know too, and have likely been trying to address all summer.
Firstly, we need our strikers back, and we need to expand the options up front over and above Simms and Stewart to ensure any further injury issues do not hit us like this again.
We need more physicality in midfield - if Jay Matete isn’t the answer quite yet, loan him out to learn and get someone in.
We need our defenders back, and more depth in defence too. We need height and ability both centrally and out wide. Our challenges on Saturday were very much influenced by our injuries situation, but we did have one big unit on the bench. If we are totally unable to shore up at the back with the squad we have, we need changes and depth to help.
Though we lost the second half and the match, there were a lot of positives to take from that match. Bearing in mind we finished last season 5th in the division below, we aren’t doing too bad you know. We really aren’t.
Bring on Luton, and lets get back out on there and get some more points on the board. When we get our full squad back fit and add to the depth in the winter window, we could well do better than many expected or even hoped come next May.
We may have been given a bit of a second half lesson, but let’s keep it in context, and most of all let’s learn from it.