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Plymouth Argyle v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship

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Talking Points: What went wrong for Sunderland at Plymouth?

With a combination of bad luck and poor attacking execution, Sunderland failed to get anything from their longest away journey of the season. Malc discusses a few of his main talking points post the game.

Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images

Pressure periods failed to be maximised

Sunderland came out of the blocks really well at Home Park and created a lot of positive attacking threat in the early stages of the game. This ended up being the case at the beginning of both halves, despite us being 2-0 down by the time the first period ended, but the lack of that final clinical pass and accurate finish eluded Sunderland more than in most recent games, maybe with the exception of our visit to Swansea.

The link up between Rusyn and the wider attacking players looked quite promising early in the first half, and in the first 20 mins we saw chances for Roberts, Clarke, Rusyn and even Luke O’Nien, but none of them could quite get the ball past the Home Park stopper.

Sunderland v Middlesbrough - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Robert Smith/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

As is typical of our much-beloved team, we then watch a screamer go in from about 30 yards as we exited the first quarter of the game, and we were 1-0 down when we maybe should have been a couple to the good.

In the second half, after the introduction of Mayenda and Aouchiche for Rusyn and Ekwah which we assume was an attempt to get a foothold back in the game as early in the second period as possible, we again pressed hard for the first ten minutes and looked very likely to score. Jobe whacked the ball off the post six minutes past the break after Clarke finally put a ball where it needed to be, with the keeper well beaten. Other chances kept on coming but were not being converted.

While it was really good to see the early attacking intent in both halves, all the tasty build up play is worth nothing if we do not find that final pass and take an accurate shot that at least tests the keeper. The final pass accuracy (even from star players like Jack Clarke) wasn't quite on it, with his early runs and cut backs often going either past or behind the approaching support, rather then into their line of running.

Preston North End v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Mike Morese/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Everyone is allowed a dip at times, but yesterday we saw too many dips for too many attacking players at once, as well as a smattering of bad luck, with woodwork being rattled more than once yet again.

I think Mowbray will be dragging the lads to passing and shooting school ahead of the next fixture in the week, as we cannot continue to have that much possession but still come away with no goals at all.

Where was our middle of the park cover?

In the Friday night “Twitter/X spaces” chat, we heard from a Plymouth fan who mentioned that they really love to exploit space, and if we allow them that, they will be more dangerous a challenge.

For the grand majority of the first half it was plain even to me that we had a 30 yard hole in the middle of the pitch that no Sunderland player seemed to be covering. I am not enough of a football expert to say exactly why that was, but it was obvious to me, so I struggle to understand why it took till the half time break to do something about it.

As is often the case for our team, we tried to play out from the back and pressed from the front when out of possession. Unfortunately a lot of the times when we pressed up front, we were not as effective as we could be, and simultaneously a huge gap kept appearing in the midfield. When our press didn't work well enough, Plymouth regularly and happily drove through the centre of the pitch with ease, and with very little opposition.

Some of the lads in our Roker Report chats suggested post-match that Neil and Jobe were so far forward that Pierre Ekwah was left too isolated, however, I felt he didn’t really play that well. He also now is far from a newbie and he has a mouth, and when put in such a positions he maybe needs to demand more support from the others around him if his options in possession and out of it are repeatedly being limited.

Plymouth Argyle v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images

Luke O’Nien as our skipper maybe should have done more to sort this cover challenge out, too. His return to the centre back pairing gave me hope that his leadership and strong partnership with Ballard would greatly increase our hopes of a clean sheet, but the midfield holes continued throughout the first half, and neither the coaching staff nor the senior pros found a way to adjust. Plymouth didn't really go wide that much… they didn't need to, as the channels through the centre were fine and dandy.

Ekwah was pulled at half time post what I think was a poor performance by his own high standards, but it may be the case that eyes need to look as much at the head coach for the iffy shape and tactics, and at the other leaders in the team for not actively adjusting as much as at young Pierre.

I have to wonder if the performance of our middle men and the gaps we allowed to happen would not have been there to exploit if we had a seasoned defensive midfielder like Corry Evans in the team. Yesterday’s game reinforced to me even more we need a player like Evans in the upcoming window. Seeking cover of that role from Ekwah, Neil and others isn't really coming off well enough. Hopefully the backroom lads are working on options now, so we can allow these young attack-focused lads to do what they are best at… ask yourself, how long is it since we saw Ekwah hammer a decent shot at goal?

If there is an option to get someone in this winter window to pull this young and talented midfield into shape, I am increasingly thinking we should go for that.

Sunderland v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Robert Smith/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Positives aplenty around Adil Aouchiche

While it was one of those games when you boss it for about 70 minutes but still get nothing from it, one of the positives to come from such a loss was the second half showing from Adil Aouchiche. His introduction after the break showed me more than ever before that he may well be someone we should consider for a starting shirt in the upcoming games.

His movement and passing were crisp and intelligent, and he almost scored his second in two games on more than one occasion - if his outside of the boot shot from 20 yards went in instead of curling just wide with the keeper rooted, we may well have built from that and got something from the game.

Sunderland v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

He linked up really well with Mayenda, putting the striker through with a very deft touch in the last 15 minutes, only for Mayenda’s own controlling touch to be too heavy forcing him wide and only able to shoot into the side netting. His link play with others including Jack Clarke was impressive on regular occasions too.

His energy and stamina was spot on as well, working his socks off to get us back in the match. Right up to the 95th minute, Adil was making runs into the box off the shoulder of defenders, and his opportunity in stoppage time may have been converted, if only he realised the time and space he had generated.

With the performances of the likes of Roberts and Ekwah in the Sunderland midfield being lower than their best, we have to ask the question of whether Adil should be starting games soon in my view. He seems to have sneaked past Abdoullah Ba in the pecking order, and deservedly so as he was a lot more effective than Ba in my view, both in passing and movement. That said, the club have just put a lot of faith in Patrick Roberts with his contract extension, and he is clearly much admired by Mowbray.

Sunderland v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Robert Smith/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

All Adil can do is keep showing why he should get a starting berth, and the coach needs to decide who to drop to get him in there.

A small chink of light on a dull day for SAFC, but yet another sweet-looking signing from the Sunderland recruitment collective.

Corner frustrations

I have to throw in here something that is really bothering me, and that is the amount of corners we are taking short, rather than fizzing a cross into the box. We have some great ball strikers and even if crosses are partly cleared we have some great options on the edge of the box to either shoot or rebuild if needed.

For some reason despite all that, we don’t often go for the powerful curving cross into the danger zone our Lee used to rave about so much.

The pressure we exerted on Plymouth at times was immense. We ended up with almost 70% of possession despite being away from home, and we had 24 shots (5 on target) compared to ten shots for them (and they scored with both the two shots on target they had - so Sunderland).

Sheffield Wednesday v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

We also ended up with 14 corners (FOURTEEN). Without watching the replay to be super accurate I may be a bit off but I would guess we took at least half of them if not two thirds as short options. You have to ask — WHY?!

Dan Ballard started despite being a doubt, and in the second half when we changed personnel and arguably played a bit better (though still were unable to convert anything), Ballard twice got up and almost got goals.

On around 70 minutes, Ballard attacked the back post with Seelt and almost forced the ball and the Plymouth defender into goal, with the Argyle player taking a major whack on the thigh as he hit the post with his leg trying to keep us out. In the 94th minute, the big and supposedly only just fit defender also headed a chance goal-wards from close range which was well saved with a tip over by the Plymouth goalie.

If we can get Ballard on the end of chances from open play, the options from corners simply have to be easier to manipulate into opportunities for the towering youngster. Can we stop taking all these corners short please and lump it up to the big lads a bit more? We don't always have to score wonder goals. Any goal would have done.

Sunderland v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Robert Smith/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Final thoughts

Reflecting on that game after a bit of dinner and time to calm down, there is an element of yesterday being one of those days where no matter what we did, we were going to struggle to get something from the game.

The game did raise even more questions about how we get someone scoring other than the likes of Clarke and co, however. Certain fans (my Devon-based Uncle included, who was at the match, I think in the away crowd) will no doubt increase their queries about us finding a striker who can score goals reliably at this level.

We have been looking for a solution for some time now; the longer we fail to find working combinations across the attacking third, the more the fans will worry we will miss out on achieving our optimal potential this season and in those to come, as we build back towards a serious challenge for a premier league slot.

We created a lot of chances but simply couldn’t get it over the line. We have to hope that the positive signs from Mayenda and Aouchiche will grow and blossom, and while Rusyn was replaced at half time, he has also shown really good signs, and may well come good.

Sunderland v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Robert Smith/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The woodwork was once again not on our side, and our go-to star players couldn’t even quite wrap a good foot around the ball when it fell to them. Jack Clarke had a mixed day by his own standards, but scuffed a few options he would normally bury,

There will be times when a rocket from distance and a well executed counter attack will be more than we can overcome when away from home. We will lose games this season, and yesterday was one of them when we probably should have got something but didn’t.

I’m fairly content with that, but do feel if even one striker can get scoring and grow some confidence, we can step to another level in this league.

If that striker needs to come in this January, it's all good.

“Voulez Vous” anyone?

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