Sunderland have dropped out of the Sky Bet League One play-off positions, after yet another abysmal day at the office as they lost 2-1 to MK Dons on Saturday afternoon.
Two counter-attacking goals from Mo Eisa and (guess who?) Connor Wickham gave Liam Manning’s side all three points against the Black Cats, whose predicament worsened.
After a lacklustre first half display, where neither side controlled but MK Dons saw the better of the chances, Sunderland were simply carved open, and largely lacked a threat in the forward areas.
Former manager, Jack Ross, watched on from the directors box, as the club’s new head coach, Alex Neil, quickly realised the task at hand at the Stadium of Light.
On his Wearside debut, Alex Neil opted to make two changes from last weekend’s draw at AFC Wimbledon: Corry Evans returned to captain the side and appear in the centre of midfield, alongside Dan Neil and Jay Matete, whilst Carl Winchester moved back into the right-back role. Leon Dajaku also made his first start under his new boss, as Jack Clarke dropped to the bench, with Neil looking to shuffle up his attacking power.
While in the opening exchanges Sunderland controlled the possession, they did little with it in the forward areas to harm MK Dons.
Their play was largely lethargic and pedestrian, and the visitors were also keen to soak up that possession, and looked very threatening on the counter-attack, with the danger of Eisa, Troy Parrott and Scott Twine.
However, that danger came largely as a result of Sunderland’s lack of confidence and composure at the back, and so, MK Dons looked to punish this.
Conor Coventry’s long ball forward was straight into the stride of Parrott, but his effort was palmed just over the bar.
Sunderland were beginning to crack under the pressure, and suddenly, the fans were making their voice heard, with Alex Neil becoming very animated on the touchline to urge his side to up the ante and, with that, the intensity.
The home side needed a way out, but in the early stages that felt a mile away. Mo Eisa was proving a major threat in behind, using the qualities he displayed during his time at Peterborough United. He drew a great save from Patterson after spinning away from his man, and firing goalwards.
As the half time interval approached, the Black Cats did start to look a threat - Ross Stewart nodded wide from Pritchard’s corner.
The second half did appear to look a lot more entertaining than the tepid and timid first, as Stewart drove forward, before his pass across the face of goal was inches away from Pritchard.
But only minutes later, the Sunderland fans were, again, discontent and angry.
A simple ball through the middle found Eisa, who was played onside by a somewhat horrendous-looking backline, and calmly rolled it into the bottom left corner.
This provoked a very positive response from the Black Cats, who should have equalised immediately, but Leon Dajaku missed a sitter after a free-kick eventually dropped to the German.
Alex Neil opted to add to his attacking quality by introducing Jack Clarke and Elliot Embleton, and the latter provided the quality to up the noise levels inside the Stadium of Light - Embleton’s superb cross was guided goalwards by Stewart for his 19th goal of the season.
The Black Cats were suddenly moving the ball forward more quickly, and looking the more threatening, as Jay Matete fired wide from long-range, before Callum Doyle nodded wide.
Yet when Liam Manning chose for the introduction of Connor Wickham, inevitably, the writing was on the wall, and so it proved.
Sunderland’s defensive struggles were on full show again, as MK Dons broke in fine fashion. A one-two between Parrott and Wickham allowed for space for the former, before he teed up the former Black-Cat, who struck on old ground to produce the sucker-punch.
It was the ultimate nail in Sunderland’s coffin, as they struggled to find a way forward in the latter stages, and Wickham probably should have had a second, when Doyle was caught in possession, and the striker rolled the ball narrowly wide of the right post.
But, even if Wickham had netted, the damage was already done.
Sunderland, from a position of being 11 points above the play-offs, are now out of the top six, and the overall crisis seems to deepen.
This result will only open up the criticism for those on the pitch; there was a clear lack of confidence, especially in defence, and an ultimate lack of quality when it was needed the most.
Ahead of a massive week, with Burton and Wigan both upcoming, Alex Neil needs to address the issues holding his new side back from promotion – getting three points on Tuesday will really help that.
The Black Cats are struggling both on and off the pitch. They need stability, and quick.