Sunderland’s fragilities laid bare once again
After the bruising 0-4 home defeat to Middlesbrough and the international break that followed, the trip to the Potteries felt like an ideal opportunity for the Lads to get back on track and bank another three points ahead of tricky games against Leicester City and Norwich City.
Sadly, it didn’t work out that way, and this game proved once again that there’s no real middle ground with this Sunderland team.
We’re either dazzling, as we were against Southampton at home, or timid, disjointed, and often prone to coming off second best when games become scrappy and fragmented. Yes, we rode waves of pressure to secure a victory at Ewood Park earlier in the season, but there was a real lack of belief and conviction about our performance on Saturday.
Too many of our players had an off day against a well-organised and efficient Potters team, and Tony Mowbray’s decision to opt for no strikers in his starting XI (more on that later) didn't pay dividends.
Even the return of Alex Pritchard and Pierre Ekwah couldn’t mask our deficiencies against Alex Neil’s side, and despite this team boasting a wealth of attacking talent, results such as this are always possible if you don’t align that with a willingness to dig in, work hard, and embrace the less glamorous side of the game.
No strikers = no cutting edge
The fact that Tony Mowbray opted to start this game without a recognised centre forward in the team certainly caught many by surprise, but after Mason Burstow and Luis Hemir’s recent struggles in front of goal, perhaps he simply felt that a change was necessary and we’d have enough in the way of firepower from our attacking midfielders to secure the three points.
Unfortunately, with hindsight, that decision was the wrong one, even Hemir has often been dismissed as lazy and disinterested and our faith in Burstow not universally appreciated on the basis that ‘he’s not our player so there’s no point in persisting with him’.
In any case, we had no focal point whatsoever on Saturday, and with Jack Clarke’s attacking capabilities nullified effectively (his goal owed as much to brilliant work from Jobe Bellingham as it did to Clarke’s own sharp reactions) we simply lacked a genuine threat in front of goal all afternoon.
Personally, I don’t think it’s time to cast Hemir and/or Burstow aside, but as we wait for Eliezer Mayenda to make his debut, is it now time to give Nazariy Rusyn his chance as a central striker in a bid to solve this particular problem?
The Ukrainian certainly has the pace to stretch opposition defences and after a stodgy attacking display at the bet365 Stadium, we certainly need a little bit of spark from somewhere.
Jobe continues to impress
Genuine positives from Saturday are few and far between, but Jobe Bellingham’s performance was one of the few highlights from a fairly dismal day at the office.
His driving run, quick feet and shot led to Jack Clarke bagging the equaliser, and he acquitted himself well all afternoon, with good work rate and the willingness to drive us forward whenever he had the chance. On the ball, he was excellent, always aware of what was going on around him and able to make space and pick passes at will.
The maturity that’s been shown by the former Birmingham midfielder this season has been remarkable at times, and the only question is when he’ll eventually be rested by Mowbray in order to avoid being overplayed.
At this stage, he’s undroppable, but quite where he fits in when everyone is fit will be intriguing. On the other hand, he's clearly a versatile player so whatever kind of a role he’s asked to fulfil, he’ll doubtless do it to a high standard.
Two hard games to come, but the picture isn’t entirely negative
This game was generally considered as one where a victory would’ve been a huge boost, with a midweek trip to Leicester and a home tie against Norwich City to come, but although we slipped to defeat on Saturday, there were one or two encouraging signs as we try to fight our way out of this mini-slump.
As I wrote above, it was great to see Pierre Ekwah and Alex Pritchard returning to the first team, even if Ekwah wasn’t quite at his best without Dan Neil to compliment his skillset and Pritchard looked less than comfortable alongside Patrick Roberts and Abdoullah Ba in what sometimes felt like an overly-attacking starting eleven.
Dan Ballard, injury concerns aside, was solid enough and it’s a relief that the Northern Ireland international wasn’t ruled out for another extended period after suffering a niggle while on international duty.
Yes, Tuesday’s trip to the league leaders might feel like a home banker, but we were written off ahead of last season’s trip to Turf Moor, and we all know what happened there.
Any positive result in the East Midlands would be a huge boost ahead of the visit of the Canaries to Wearside this coming Saturday, and it’ll be another stern test as we try and steady the ship after two disappointing results.