Sunderland high on craft but low on cutting edge
It was a performance so utterly dominant that it was almost inconceivable that Sunderland would fail to win.
Curiously though clear cut chances were relatively few and far between, with the dominance coming from the time spent by Pritchard, Roberts and Clarke on the ball. Gillingham had their work cut out with Sunderland’s creative players, and to their credit, defended superbly.
However this does not necessarily translate into goals, and this was the case on Saturday. The truth is it has been the case for a little while now and it remains a concern.
It’s also bad news for Ross Stewart, who increasingly found himself forced to come wide or drop deep just to see some of the ball. There’s nothing wrong with what he did against Gillingham, but aside from his late chance, it was not a game where he ever looked threatening because the ball didn’t get put into any particularly dangerous areas.
As Neil said post-match, they need to address it - 25 shots with only five on target tells that story.
It was, however nice to see them stick to their principals
Credit to the team for sticking to the game plan, even as the game wore on.
Yes, they left it late, but it was playing with patience and composure which meant the right result was achieved eventually; though there’s no doubt everyone of a red and white persuasion would have preferred the goal to have come sooner.
It was refreshing to be spared the usual aimless punts upfield as a result slipped away yet again - the usual modus operandi of a side getting increasingly desperate - but this time Sunderland showed nothing of the sort.
Just score earlier next time, eh? That way about 10,000 more people will be there to see it.
Neil’s substitutions pay off...again
Alex Neil cuts the sort of figure who couldn’t care less about what anyone thinks of him, his team selections or opinions. He probably goes to dinner parties and tells the host that the beef wellington was shit because that, in his mind, is the truth. Take it or leave it.
While that might rub people up the wrong way - Lord knows, if Lee Johnson said some of the stuff he’s come out with there would be hell on - it’s hard to argue with him when he gets it right. And this is no more the case with his substitutions.
The changes were welcome - who doesn’t love a triple sub? But it also underlines Neil’s willingness to dispense with niceties - if you’re off, you’re off.
Fair enough, he is in the fortunate position that players such as Pritchard (who is so far above this level) can soften up the opposition allowing his options from the bench to go for the kill.
AFC Wimbledon call their substitutes finishers, because they think it better describes the role players on the bench play. With Broadhead, Embleton and Gooch able to come on and stretch play further, this feels like a much more suitable tag for them too.
This feels like a team much more suited to playing the better sides in the division
It’s getting a bit boring now, isn’t it? Four years of watching teams turn time-wasting into a national sport. The number of times we saw Gillingham’s Ryan Jackson pop for a pint of milk before taking his throw-in was infuriating; he appeared surprised it was him every time he had to take one, as if he wasn’t usually on those duties.
It’s becoming clear that Sunderland are a team who are perfectly set up to play better football against the division’s more expansive teams. And by that I mean the better sides in the division who actually need to get a result.
As such, trips to Oxford and Plymouth are a golden opportunity. It’s perhaps Shrewsbury who pose the biggest challenge because their tactics - and Tom Flanagan - might prove more effective against Alex Neil’s men. Plus the pressure will be on the home side. Let’s hope he does a Flanno and doesn’t read the long balls over the top.
Sunderland will create chances next week against an Oxford side who will need the win in equal measure, but who will be fatigued after a long midweek trip to Morecambe.
There’s no doubt it’s set up perfectly.
Things look rock solid at the back
Who would have thought that post Bolton?
Over the last half a dozen games or so, Sunderland have slipped into a nice rhythm when it comes to defending - it looks like they are enjoying it again. Bailey Wright has been instrumental in achieving this.
People will understandably say that teams like Gillingham came and posed little threat. While that is true, there was an attempt to play on the counter, but the way in which Verdane Oliver was swallowed up by Batth and Wright was a joy to behold. Quite simply he got nothing all afternoon, and that wasn’t just because of the Gills’ setup.
Gone - for now - are the Johnson days of being wide open down the flanks, and I for one couldn’t be happier.
Crucially, it’s this defensive solidity that brings an equilibrium that must be the foundations for a successful final six games of the season.