Matt Smith says…
There’s no doubt that our current habit of securing last minute winners is an invaluable asset for our play-off and even automatic promotion ambitions, however unlikely the latter prospect currently looks.
Yet the frequency with which we’ve recently relied upon late goals at home against struggling sides is still concerning.
Of greater concern than the timing of our goals of late has been the inability of Neil’s starting eleven to break teams down. This suggests the issue is one of getting the balance right between our undoubted attacking potential and the need to shore up our defensive frailties.
The first 20 minutes of the Shrewsbury game briefly dispelled such concerns as we seemed to rediscover our LJ-era flair but built on more solid foundations. Yet though we’d finally managed to have our cake and eat it, we quickly suffered a bout of chronic indigestion and needed a late goal yet again to bail us out.
While it was encouraging to see Neil give freer rein to our attacking qualities, my concern is that the early second half capitulation may have scared him off such experimentation in that direction for future games. Neither my health nor, I fear, our promotion prospects can continue to rely so heavily on late goals always arriving when we most need them.
As a fan I don’t think that there’s a better way to win than to celebrate a goal right at the death, late in the game - but in reality, you want your team to be clinical and to control the match, and the fact you need to score late winners suggests you have one or two problems in your gameplan.
Interestingly, there have been different reasons for why we’ve needed to win games late on recently - on Saturday it was our sloppy start to the second half that almost cost us, but against Gillingham it was a combination of poor chance creation, and the away team coming to spoil the game and waste time.
Our ability to win games late on is both a strength and a weakness in my book. Whilst it shows we have a fantastic, never-say-die approach to games, it also highlights that we are largely unable to dominate games in the way that Wigan and MK Dons are currently. It shows that there’s still work to do - though, it’s heartening that Alex Neil admitted he’s not happy with the way we played against Shrewsbury, as it sends a message to everyone that we still have to improve, and stay on our toes.
Deep down, the fact we aren’t putting the rest of the league on alert with our performances is preventing me from getting too far ahead of myself. I still don’t feel confident that we have enough to get promoted - though that will change if we can carry on this form and head into the play-offs as the hardest team to beat.
Phil West says…
I think our ability to dig out late winners and ensure that we never give up, no matter how lost the cause may seem, is a massive positive, and arguably one of the most crucial characteristics that Alex Neil has instilled in the team.
Under his management there seems to be a new ethos, based on resilience and a will to win that I haven’t seen in a Sunderland team for quite some time.
Against Shrewsbury, for example, the concession of two cheap goals to draw the game might well have resulted in us completely imploding and maybe even conceding a third, but we regrouped, regathered ourselves, and were rewarded with another late winner.
It takes composure to grind out a result from such a position, and I liked the way we kept probing and seeking to work an opportunity, rather than just hitting and hoping.
Regarding our late winning goals, I don’t believe it’s merely down to luck or good fortune.
As Roy Keane once said, if you keep working hard in games, opportunities will present themselves, and Shrewsbury was proof of that. Rewards will only come if the right attitude is shown, and we ticked that box emphatically.
Any team who is challenging for promotion needs to have the ability to fight until the very end, and we certainly have that now. At this stage of the season, it doesn’t matter when or how the goals come. As long as we are on the right side of the scoreboard when the whistle blows, that’s the only thing we should be focusing on. And let’s be honest, there is no thrill that compares to snatching a victory deep into injury time, either!