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Stoke City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship

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Editorial: We can’t afford to put the Stoke game ‘in the bin’

There are valuable lessons to learn from Saturday, on and off the field.

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Let’s cut to the chase: we were poor on Saturday.

From the team selection and in-game management to the performance of the majority of the players (Dan Ballard the notable exception), and Mowbray blaming Storm Babet post-game, I thought we just weren’t at the races.

Coming off the back of the Middlesbrough game, I had anticipated a fired-up display determined to show our performance in our second-half collapse had been a one-off. But, no. For the large part, we lacked precision, and it seemed as if we didn’t have much of a plan A – never mind plan B.

We ended up hoping for an individual moment of brilliance or two, rather than trying to be the better team throughout the game, which we were more than capable of being.

Because Stoke has, in the past, been a tough place to go to, and the ‘Alex Neil’ factor, this fixture was probably treated differently than how it should have been.

In truth, Stoke are a poor team, that plays pretty dire football and relies on breaking up play and tactical fouls to succeed. If we aspire to finish in the top six this season, we need to get points in games like this.

Stoke City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship
Were we once again too distracted by the ‘Neil’ factor?
Photo by Jess Hornby/Getty Images

On another day, of course, our performance – as lacklustre as it was – could easily have produced three points. If the referee had spotted the blatant handball in the build-up to Stoke’s opener, or given Jack Clarke what was a pretty clear-cut last-minute penalty, we’d have scored a good result.

However, refereeing decisions are out of our hands, and are only an issue because we didn’t play well.

Of course, individually and collectively, we won’t be at our tip-top best every week – no team is. And we’ve got to accept that, with the approach we’re taking, that variation in individual performance will likely be greater than it would be with 28-year-old championship pros.

The big plus for us is that those performance highs from the likes of Ekwah, Clarke, Ba and so on may well be higher than an experienced pro produces – but the lows are going to be lower. That’s part of learning the game, and I think the majority accept that.

However, that’s where we need to rely on Tony Mowbray’s tactical approach before and during games – and to be honest, I didn’t think he’s had the best couple of games.

Stoke City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship
Would Mowbray take a different approach in hindsight?
Photo by Jess Hornby/Getty Images

And that’s okay – everyone gets things wrong in their jobs sometimes – but I feel that he got it badly wrong in the second half against Boro, and again yesterday both in his team selection and in-game management.

We’ve been crying out for a striker for ages, now have three, and we know Stoke are going to be physical and aerial. So playing Pritchard and Roberts as ‘false 9s’, while Hemir, Burstow and Rusyn sit on the bench seemed ridiculous.

Yes, none of them have set the world alight for us yet, but in terms of team structure alone, having a ‘proper’ centre forward gives us more than just a goal threat.

We were crying out for a change or two at halftime, but none came until past the hour mark – and then it just looked like we were throwing the dice. Stoke did a great job tactically – not getting dragged over to our right and doubling up on Clarke meant our most potent weapon was often crowded out; however, we played into their hands somewhat with Pritchard and Roberts deployed centrally, which kept the game more compact than it needed to be.

For me, Roberts has to play on the wing or not at all – his threat in the central areas is negligible, and we need to start seeing the likes of Aouchiche being used from the off sooner rather than later.

Rusyn’s confusing me too – allegedly a striker who plays in the inside channels, he’s played left wing and now right wing as we’ve searched for a goal. He needs a run up front – it’s unfair on him to play out of position, but we seem reluctant to do that.

Sunderland v Middlesbrough - Sky Bet Championship
Should Rusyn be played through the middle?
Photo by Robert Smith/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Yes, we need to accept the consistency of inconsistency in terms of individual player performance – however, we need to give them all the best chance to succeed, and over the past game and a half, we’ve not done that.

I believe it’ll come – Mowbray’s shown enough so far to show he can be flexible and get the team organised and motivated – however, with a very tough away game to follow tomorrow in the shape of Leicester, we need to respond correctly.

Because while Mowbray might have been keen to put the Boro game ‘in the bin’, it’d be folly to do the same with the Stoke match. On and off the field, there are valuable lessons to learn.


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