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Sunderland v Burton Albion - Sky Bet League One

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Talking Points: Sunderland AFC - the Mary Celeste of League One continues to drift aimlessly

Major, major problems for Alex Neil - and he’s the man who has to come up with a fix. One thing’s for sure, those long balls won’t help...

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Long ball tactics pay zero dividends

With about 75 minutes on the clock, I wrote down “Long balls shite. Crossing shite. Everything shite”.

Sunderland, I love you. I always will, but God almighty you don’t half make it hard.

Where this club is concerned, substitute “Hollywood pass” for “aimless punt”.

It was almost like the ghost of Phil Parkinson had suddenly risen from the earth beneath the technical area (why do they call it that?) and began to instruct the players to pump it long time and time again. Some very sour memories were reawoken at that point, let me tell you. Watching players who should know better play balls that had less than 10% chance of success was infuriating.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for playing long balls over the top against teams who play a high line, and you have a winger who can peel off their marker. If that winger then has the ability to take a touch and take their man on, then great - fill your boots.

Sadly it’s not possible with - primarily - Gooch in that role, and Tuesday proved it. All it did was serve to allow Burton to turn possession over and control the midfield, and put our ramshackle defence under pressure.

In Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Burton have a manager who knows what he is doing - was he ever thought of as the man who would want to take a big swig on our massive poisoned chalice? On 20 minutes he clearly tweaked their system to restrict our wide players, forcing them as close to the touchline as possible, giving no room for manoeuvre. It’s no coincidence we went to pot after that point.

Sunderland v Burton Albion - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

But why persist? All I can assume is that it is because there were players out there who didn’t really want to be on the ball; it’s the hot potato that the vast majority of our team do not look comfortable on right now. Add that to the fact Burton’s forward line pressed us, forcing the likes of Evans and Cirkin into taking the easy option of the big hoof.

Special mention too to the crossing, which was a complete nonsense all night - at least until the 93rd minute. I remember when Martin O’Neill took charge of his first game, a 2-1 win over Blackburn; post-match he said that until the equaliser, in the 84th minute, the balls into the box had been from the wrong angle - too flat, too predictable, and too easy to defend.

That was on show in abundance again. It’s got to stop.

This side needs to show far more intelligence and craft.


Sunderland look wide open on the counter

Ah the age old problem. Quite easy to see how we’ve got here. It’s been happening for a long time too - we saw it against Portsmouth at home, Lincoln, all those horrific away defeats - hell even Morecambe could have had a couple in the first half against us.

Why? Well first of all because of the way the players have been trained up to this point; that one is on Lee Johnson. However it has been compounded by the fact that we - incomprehensibly - have one left back, who is in desperate need of a break, one right back that apparently isn’t ready for the first team and a centre back in Callum Doyle who isn’t running on fumes - he’s on the hard shoulder with his hazard lights on.

In many ways this side does not have the ability to repel attacks - too many of them appear like they’re running through treacle when tracking back, and it was the same again against the Brewers. And when you have very little cover coming from the midfield, there’s a real problem going on here - and so the goal proved.

Sunderland v Burton Albion - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

That falls directly at the feet of Kristjaan Speakman.

I find it absolutely astonishing to be in this position, at this point in the season. It’s a gross dereliction of duty he’s allowed this to happen. Why on earth he sanctioned the departures of Flanagan and Hume (and even Ollie Younger, who has been part of far more League One victories than us lately) without replacing them is something that the finest minds in this country would have trouble making sense of.

Getting Hume in the side for three or four games, allowing Cirkin to come back refreshed and in form would have been... sensible. Ditto Flanagan and Doyle.

These players have been red-lining it and now there’s a nasty burning smell coming from far too many of them. It’s little wonder, given that the likes of Neil, Cirkin and Doyle haven’t played a whole season of senior football before, and that’s before we get onto the mental fatigue being in this position now brings.

It’s also meant players who should be nowhere near the first XI - Lynden Gooch - are starting matches. Gooch has been a good, but ultimately unsuccessful servant to this club and a fresh start for both parties would be the best thing.

One thing is for sure - when Luke O’Nien comes back he’ll be slotting straight in at centre back, on the assumption that one of Batth or Wright is injured, or if Neil opts to go with a three.

At least the manager recognises there is a problem - but admits he can do precisely bugger all about it. He’s like the surgeon who’s been told to perform open heart surgery with a Tommee Tippee spoon.


Some players do have credit

Ah, the green shoots of positivity - and crucially could provide a solution, at least going forward.

There are players out there who look like they can contribute, and continue to do so. Alex Pritchard played the captain’s role - never afraid of getting on the ball, always looking to create something. Ross Stewart is continuing to score, and amidst all the huffing and puffing from the fanbase, he has quietly hit the 20 goal mark this season. Jay Matete, though he was a little subdued, clearly reads the game well and when Dan Neil boots Corry Evans out the midfield once and for all, the two could form a decent partnership.

Sunderland v Burton Albion - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

However the most positive aspect of the last 20 minutes at least, was the performance of Jack Clarke. Unvarnished and a little sloppy, yes, but willing to take his man on, get balls into the box, and pose different questions to a Burton defence who up to that point Sunderland had been chucking pies at all night.

There is little doubt that Wigan will pose a very different test, and - as long as he is capable of 90 minutes - Clarke has earned a start on Saturday.

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