A thoroughly dismal result
After two successive victories, both of which were achieved at a relative canter, this was a major stinger for Sunderland; not just in terms of the final scoreline but also after the various incidents and pivotal moments during the ninety minutes that led to it.
On a day when passions ran high and the question of whether this game is a derby or not was basically forgotten, we needed to handle the occasion and ensure that we were switched on and ready to deliver inside a cauldron-like atmosphere.
Sadly, the game didn’t play out that way and in an encounter that was low on quality but loaded with controversy, we simply weren’t anywhere close to our best as some familiar weaknesses surfaced once again.
Had we shown greater resilience and managed to keep the scoreline reasonably respectable, the blow might’ve been cushioned somewhat, but the second half collapse was an ugly sight to behold and it’ll doubtless have shaken the players’ confidence as Michael Carrick’s men ran riot.
Dan Neil learns a painful lesson
Let’s not beat about the bush here: Neil has been immensely impressive this season, with a string of top quality performances and a level of maturity to his play that’s marked him out as one of the most influential figures in the team.
However, the young midfielder’s dismissal was undoubtedly a turning point in the game, and regardless of whether a ridiculously performative display from Jarred Gillett was always going to be the day’s main talking point, Neil simply shouldn't have given the Australian referee a decision to make when he protested against the non-awarding of a foul in no uncertain terms.
What was needed in that situation was a calm head, plenty of restraint, and the ability to walk away when you know you’re unlikely to win the argument.
Yes, Neil would’ve been desperate to play his part in a Sunderland victory, but his passion clearly got the better of him and the red card gave Middlesbrough a huge boost just before half time, as well as sucking the wind out of our sails and robbing us of a player who would’ve been key to a positive result.
Neil will learn from this and his teammates and coaches will doubtless rally round him, but it’s essential that he smartens up and learns that some battles can’t be won, regardless of how aggrieved you might feel.
A big occasion, but a relatively underwhelming display
If we’re to mount a sustained promotion challenge this season, these are the kinds of matches that we simply have to deliver in, and there’s no doubt that when it comes to the big Stadium of Light occasions, we do have a lingering frailty that seems to be purely a matter of confidence and a mentality that isn’t yet rock solid.
The 5-0 walloping of Southampton is proof that when we get it right, we can be a match for anyone, but we’re also just as liable to trip up in games that we might be expected to win, and that’s a nagging flaw that can’t go unaddressed.
Even before Neil’s red card, I had doubts about whether this was going to be our day, because something just felt off from the start.
Overall, the performance seemed to be a little bit forced and there wasn’t the same crispness to our attacking play that we’ve often seen recently. The absences of Pierre Ekwah and Alex Pritchard were keenly felt and overall, we looked slightly out of sorts.
Historically, promotion-winning Sunderland teams have been blessed with the ability to rack up victories in big, televised home matches, and whilst the season is still young and with many twists and turns ahead, we need to ensure that days like this don’t become habitual, not least because our home form in general is extremely underwhelming.
The difference between a top six finish and missing out altogether could be marginal, so when the stakes are high and the expectations heavy, the Lads need to ensure that they’re as sharp mentally as they are with the ball at their feet.
A well-timed international break lies ahead
If the last hiatus from league action, which followed the Southampton game, came at an unfortunate moment, the latest pause has certainly arrived at the right time after a heavy recent schedule.
The Lads have delivered some excellent results in recent weeks and their performances have been generally consistent, but this was a disappointing way to wrap up the run of games and there’ll be some shattered bodies and tired minds in the Sunderland ranks right now.
Hopefully, by the time we reconvene after the internationals, the news on the injury front will be slightly more positive and the players who’ve done so well recently will be well-rested and recharged.
The returns of Pritchard and Ekwah, as well as the likes of Timothée Pembélé, Eliezer Mayenda, Aji Alese and Dennis Cirkin will be a huge boost, and by the time the league resumes, Tony Mowbray should have a far stronger squad at his disposal.
This was a bad day for everyone connected with the club, but it doesn’t mean that the model is failing or that the players aren’t up to it, because they’ve responded to setbacks before and they’ll doubtless do it again.
Some positive results when we resume, and this dismal afternoon will be parked very quickly.