Zero shots on target from open play - what went wrong for Sunderland ?
Saturday’s performance was incredibly lacklustre and highly underwhelming. Other than Pritchard’s excellent free-kick, Sunderland failed to test the opposition goalie and were second best in the final third.
Throughout the match, Alex Neil’s side failed to create anything bar a half chance for Ross Stewart and the team looked both tired and lacking in confidence.
Defensively, Anthony Patterson looked rather flappy and still doesn’t breed confidence to many fans on Wearside just yet, plus Callum Doyle and Dennis Cirkin once again showed their lack of confidence. Unfortunately, their competition was sold.
Two positives were that Bailey Wright returned and Trai Hume looked comfortable, raising questions as to why we waited so long to see the young Northern Irishman in action.
In midfield, Jay Matete was Sunderland’s standout player adding pace and a clear bite, he has an excellent willingness to battle for everything. However, Dan Neil struggled once again, which will be something our new manager will be looking to remedy given just how crucial he has been this season.
Without a ten, Sunderland were relying on the wide men to make things happen, but both Jack Clarke and Alex Pritchard struggled to get into the match properly.
Another alarming point is that Stewart has now gone six matches without a goal. He is another who looked leggy and low on confidence.
Sadly, bringing Jermain Defoe on won’t win us any games if we cannot get the ball to his feet. Our attempt to change the match didn’t prove effective and the substitutes failed to really get into the match.
Overall, the match lacked quality and was largely just a game of endless fouls.
Goalscorer Alex Pritchard's take on today's game.— Sunderland AFC (@SunderlandAFC) February 12, 2022
Neil changed to a 4-3-3 system - did it work?
Given that Sunderland were second best, the short answer is no, but the poor performance has no blame on Neil given the incredibly short amount of time he had with the players.
The key issue currently is that Sunderland look vulnerable in a four and the current members of the backline are lacking confidence.
Our side has looked best this season in a five, but given that we only have three recognised centre-backs who have played regularly, it is difficult to do as Danny Batth was ruled out of the squad.
Although we had more protection with an added midfielder, Sunderland still found themselves being easily carved open and could have easily conceded more.
The main issue going forward was that there was little support for Stewart and Pritchard is far more effective in a number ten role.
If Stewart did win anything, there was no one close to link with and this has been an ongoing issue since the injury to Nathan Broadhead.
The dilemma Neil has is that the club has just recruited some excellent offensive players and now has great depth behind Stewart, but it cannot be properly unleashed if we are so vulnerable defensively.
What key things does Alex Neil need to change?
The first thing Neil simply has to do to save this season to rectify the mood at Sunderland - it simply stinks of deflation both on and off the pitch.
That is no fault of his own, more so the hierarchy, but the fans and players need a lift. You could clearly see players that performed well earlier in the season being safer and making mistakes they simply didn’t before.
Realistically, you would expect that Sunderland’s best chance of promotion now is going on a run to be in good form ready for the playoffs. To do that we need both the players and fans confident that this season isn’t a write-off.
On the pitch, the main thing to change is shifting the feeling that Sunderland are vulnerable defensively. There is simply no fear factor when playing our side, every team knows that they are able to get at us and score goals.
This season we have always looked like a side capable of scoring, but there needs to be a balance in that we can also defend leads and be able to churn out clean sheets. We need to be comfortable holding onto leads with ten minutes to go and not always feel like a goal is coming.
If those two things happen, Neil can then really focus on getting the best out of the excellent attacking options that Sunderland possess.
Do Sunderland need to look at free agents to rectify our lack of depth?
Given Sunderland’s struggles to bring in a defender on deadline day, our lack of cover at full-back, as well as our ongoing goalkeeping issues, is it now time to look at the free-agent market for reinforcements?
With Lee Burge’s ongoing Covid related issues, combined with Thorban Hoffmann’s recent absence, Sunderland have been left with a goalkeeper they planned to play at National League level to gain experience.
Right now, I do not think Patterson is ready to play for a promotion challenging League One side, so if Burge is out long-term, would it not be better to add more experience to a side that is full of players lacking appearances at this level?
In addition to this, as Sunderland did not bring in a defender to replace Tom Flanagan, as well as the uncertainty surrounding Arby Xhemajli, would it not make sense to bring in another experienced head there to enable Neil to play a three?
This would also add much-needed cover so the likes of Doyle can be given time out of the side.
Currently, Sunderland are relying on Luke O’Nien to return to fitness for full-back cover, but given his desire to play in midfield this is far from ideal.
Someone like Andre Wisdom springs to mind. An experienced head from a superior level who can cover everywhere at the back. He also played under Neil during a loan spell at Norwich.
Any free agent signings would take time to get up to speed, but as things stand Sunderland are a few injuries in defence or in goal away from a complete crisis.