Something’s missing from Sunderland Women’s general play right now, something that was evident in the 1-0 loss at Southampton’s St Mary’s Stadium today, something the cause of which is hard to pinpoint precisely.
But the symptoms of the ailment are glaringly obvious; we are not holding onto the ball well enough, we are not getting into the opposition’s penalty area often enough, and we are putting our dogged defence under unnecessary pressure on too many occasions.
Maybe it's the in-game nous of Keira Ramshaw or the neat and precise link-up play of Abbey Joice that is lacking, or maybe it's the technique and passing range of the youngsters Libbi McInnes and Grace Ede that we need to add into the mix.
Certainly, there are players who, for whatever reason, have not featured heavily in the first half dozen games that might be knocking on the gaffer’s office door this week and making their cases for inclusion in next week’s crucial away game against Blackburn Rovers.
There are also players who are yet to make a telling impact on the side, and others who need to be put under pressure for their regular starting slots. As Mel Reay suggested in the post-match interviews, the whole squad will be needed this season.
And while there’s certainly no need to panic quite yet, four points from 21 is well below what we would have expected or hoped for back in August - progression following last year’s consolidation was meant to be the goal this season.
That five of those seven games have been against the top sides in the league, and that we’re yet to play another part-time side, is of course not insignificant. And everyone is aware that Coventry United's pointless position at the foot of the table does provide us with a comfortable cushion against the unthinkable drop back into the National League.
Neither fact should be cause for complacency, however, and both underline the fact that the upcoming series of Women’s Championship matches against fellow semi-pro sides Blackburn (ninth), Lewes (seventh), and Coventry are now must-wins. If things don’t improve quickly, we will be increasingly looking at Watford’s demise and hoping history does not repeat itself.
This afternoon’s game down on the south coast was a pretty even affair, with the “fine margin” between the sides being the combination of Katie Wilkinson’s head and Elle Pusey’s quick anticipation. That goal on 58 minutes came moments after Claudia Moan had pulled off a world-class reaction save with her feet to deny Wilkinson her first goal in Southampton colours. On the balance of play, their lead was probably just about deserved.
And yet the result could easily have been different, two finger-tip saves that bookended the second half from the Saint’s goalkeeper, Kayla Rendell, ultimately proved decisive. Firstly, she tipped a low shot from Emily Scarr onto the far post after our forward used her pace to skin the Southampton defence, then a strong hand pushed a strike from Abby Holmes over the bar after the Sunderland substitute found herself in space just inside the box.
But when Mel Reay and Steph Libbey sit down with the analysts at the Academy of Light this week, they won’t be looking at the small number of individual goalscoring opportunities that were eeked out at St Mary’s, they’ll be working out why the chances for Sunderland were so few and far between before the substitutions changed the flow of the game.
It could well be that something tactical isn’t quite right, Reay is not beyond reflecting on her own contribution and looking if there’s something in the way the team is set up that is preventing the lasses from retaining the ball and being effective in the final third. She’s the one who is making the calls and she’ll be the one who will take responsibility for putting them right.
The set-up today was more attacking than in the last few games; Holmes was withdrawn for attacker Nicki Gears and Holly Manders made way for fellow wingers Tyler Dodds. The tactical switch was clear, three central midfielders behind a fluid and pacey front three. But there was something missing between those lines, and we looked the better side when the changes in personnel were reversed in the second half.
Not everything needs changing, but some things can’t stay the same. We have a solid base, whether we’re in a five or a four at the back the tackling strength and positional experience of Grace McCatty and Brianna Westrup was on show once more today. Megan Beer’s goal-saving tackle in the first half was a real moment to savour, and it was worrying that she had to make way at the break.
Moan’s well-deserved unbroken run of games between the sticks will be giving her confidence a huge boost. Scarr once again showed that, as lone strikers go, she has everything you need at this level - her first-half long-range strike could have changed the course of the game and forced a fine save from Rendell - and young Katy Watson looks a real threat in her late cameos.
Mel Reay’s thoughts on today’s defeat at St Mary’s.— Sunderland AFC Women (@SAFCWomen) October 30, 2022
Watch here… pic.twitter.com/fBzOaTQcOy
The motto on the club badge they wear proudly on their chests says, in Latin, “Consectatio Excellentiae”. On the long journey back up the motorways of England today, and in their training sessions this week, the need to pursue excellence in all areas of the pitch and in every moment on and off the ball must surely be the focus of the conversation.
And we can play our part too. As the weather worsens and the stakes get ever higher, the Sunderland fans need to stick with the team - they need our vocal support and unflinching encouragement at every stage.
This squad is good enough, it is deep enough, it is experienced enough, to achieve that mid-table position that right now looks a long way off but is, in reality, only a couple of wins away. Or, as the city’s motto begins, “Nil Desperandum...”