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Sunderland v Rotherham United - Sky Bet League One - Stadium of Light

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Talking Points: Physical Millers prove tough opponents – but a point puts fate in our own hands

Sunderland struggled to get to grips with a strong Rotherham side. Did we get it wrong with our set-up, or were our opponents just too good for us?

Photo by Zac Goodwin/PA Images via Getty Images

Did we get our game plan wrong?

Granted, Rotherham are an altogether different proposition to Cambridge, but from the off, we were clearly adopting a completely different gameplan – one that tried to contain Rotherham and go toe-to-toe with them physically.

Unfortunately, Rotherham have strengths that we don’t have – they’re strong, direct, in the referee’s ear all game, and tread a very fine line when it comes to fouls, timewasting and that physical side of the game. They’re a very, very effective side, all credit to them, and we’re simply not that type of team. We don’t have those types of players to take them on at their own game – yet that’s what we seemed to set out to do.

From kick-off, we were shelling long balls up, looking to win the physical battle, and we simply couldn’t do it. On our podcast after the Cambridge game, I praised Alex Neil for adopting his tactics for different opposition – last night I think we got it wrong.

Dropping Embleton after a stunning display on Saturday, and switching Gooch onto the ‘wrong’ flank, showed we were more concerned with stopping the opposition than playing our own game. I believe we’re good enough to beat any team in this league if we use our players to their strengths – we didn’t do that last night. Whether that was by design, or as a consequence of Rotherham’s strengths is debatable.

Rotherham were a team who are limping over the finishing line – their confidence would have been fragile had we taken the lead, or even equalised earlier than we did. But we were very cautious, and seemed to be focused on not getting beat.

Alex Neil seemed quite content with how the game went – publically at least – which I found interesting. We could well play Rotherham in the play-offs, and if we want to go up, we’ll have to be far better than we were last night.

Sunderland v Rotherham United - Sky Bet League One - Stadium of Light
Did Alex Neil get it wrong tonight?
Photo by Zac Goodwin/PA Images via Getty Images

Zero shots on target in a home game of such importance was extremely disappointing

A consequence of our game plan to nulify Rotherham was that we didn’t create a thing. Nothing. Nil. Nada. To not have a shot on target in a home game against a promotion rival – remember, a win would have given us a very slim chance of promotion – is really poor.

Yes, Rotherham are a good team – I’d say they’re the most effective team we’ve played this season – but to not create a thing in a game of such magnitude is really disappointing.

Broadhead probably had his poorest game in a Sunderland shirt – Neil admitted after the game he probably shouldn’t have played him due to injury – and Ross Stewart didn’t get a sniff. Gooch was the main provider last time out, and it wasn’t until he shifted back to the right that we looked capable of causing the opposition a problem.

Sunderland v Rotherham - Sky Bet League One
Stewart didn’t get a look in last night
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Ultimately, however, it was a good result – and our spirit cannot be questioned

Having said all of that, however, the draw was a good result – worth far more than the point we added to our total. If Rotherham had won, they’d have been up on goal difference, for all intents and purposes, but the draw means MK Dons only trail them by a point heading into the weekend’s fixtures.

MK Dons travel to Plymouth, who are now a point behind us, and they know they have to win to capitalise on a Rotherham slip up at Gillingham – who themselves need a result to avoid relegation.

If we’d had lost last night MK Dons may have struggled to get themselves up for their game, and protected themselves ahead of the play-offs, Instead, they’ve got everything to play for, and hopefully, that’s good news for us.

We kept on going, kept our heads up, and showed those fighting qualities that have been evident since Neil’s early days – and, regardless of anything else, that’s a big positive.

Sunderland v Rotherham United - Sky Bet League One - Stadium of Light
A point in the end
Photo by Zac Goodwin/PA Images via Getty Images

Will this be a worthwhile lesson for what – hopefully – lies ahead?

If we do get into the play-offs, we’re going to face two or three games against opposition of a similar quality to Rotherham.

If we do get there, we simply cannot afford to go into those games with such a negative set-up. Alex Neil is the type of manager to analyse his own performance as much as the players’.

Would he approach this game in exactly the same way if he had his time again?

Hopefully not.

If we set up like that against whoever we might play in the play-offs, we’ll struggle to go up, simple as that.

Fortunately, I think we’ve got a manager who’s more than capable of objectively assessing his and his players’ performance, and making little tweaks to ensure we produce more.

Sunderland v Rotherham United - Sky Bet League One - Stadium of Light
We need to take the lessons from last night - similar tests, hopefully, lie ahead
Photo by Zac Goodwin/PA Images via Getty Images

Premier League ref? Not any time soon

I had high hopes that Bobby Madley, a former Premier League ref, would keep a tight handle on the game and stop Rotherham’s over-physicality. I was wrong.

From his ridiculous decision to book Matete for a lovely tackle, to not spotting the clear foul on Ross Stewart in the build-up to Rotherham’s goal, he failed to keep control of the game, and that played right into the visitor’s hands.

The fact that he only booked Rathbone after probably his third bookable offence summed up his display. He wasn’t the reason for Sunderland’s poor performance, as we’ve discussed. But he certainly didn’t help.

Sunderland v Rotherham United - Sky Bet League One - Stadium of Light
To be fair, he almost set up a breakaway for Sunderland, until he penalised... himself
Photo by Zac Goodwin/PA Images via Getty Images

Still, it’s all in our own hands

With five minutes to go, we were facing the prospect of going to Morecambe, winning, and finishing seventh.

Now, thanks to that equaliser, we head to the west coast knowing that a win will guarantee us a spot in the play-offs.

With Morecambe fighting to stay up, they’ll be desperate for the three points, too, so it’s certainly not going to be easy – but it’s in our own hands, and that’s something to be grateful for.


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