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Sunderland v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship

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Matchday Musings: Sunderland draw with Millwall… just!

The lads travel home from the capital with a point, and while that is a decent return, we were still far from our best.

Photo by Robert Smith/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Well, that was an interesting afternoon wasn’t it?

When I saw the starting lineup I was sort of pleased, as one of the things that were definitely needed were a couple of changes after that woeful performance at home to Huddersfield.

The team who played on Wednesday (including the subs) looked flat, disinterested and lacked any spark of creativity, so when it was confirmed at 2pm that we had a few changes in the starting eleven, I was happy the gaffer had altered a few things to at least try and shake things up a bit.

Huggins made it back into the back line, while Ekwah returned into the midfield along with Ba, and Burstow started up front for us. The latter was probably the biggest surprise for me, as I thought Mayenda would have been preferred to the Chelsea loanee.

Given we have gone so long since scoring from a striker, I suppose it should be no surprise that another roll of the dice is being tried by Mowbray and the coaching team.

Reflecting on who was left out, I was pleased that young Jobe was finally given a rest. The lad is young and very talented but has probably played too many minutes as a result of those factors. Hopefully he can recharge his batteries off the back of yesterday and get back to his best self, as that will benefit us and him.

Sunderland v Norwich City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The first 45

The first half started pretty positively for me, with the playing style and performance levels immediately looking more acceptable than Wednesday’s game at home. From the off, it was clear Jack Clarke was going to try and take on his man out wide on the left, and at times he did well, while at others the Millwall defender Leonard contained Clarke quite effectively.

It was also pretty clear in the first 20 minutes that the coach had been discussing how we may be able to create more space and chances to attack. Some of the diagonal balls from O’Nien to Clarke were a joy to see, but sadly with the attention of a decent right back and the odd error made, our man Clarke didn't manage to do much with the space created early on. Our first real shot on target in the first half ended up coming from Dan Neil from the edge of the box after about 20 minutes, but he scuffed it and it was easily gathered. Luke O’Nien found himself with a shooting chance ten minutes later after an Aouchiche free kick dropped to him, but he was effectively blocked out.

Millwall got into the game more in the last 15m of the first half, with a cutback being offered but no Millwall players making the run about ten minutes before half time, and a long range shot going narrowly wide not long after. Across this period, SAFC continued to have possession at times, but when approaching the final third we seemed to lose it way too easily, partly down to our sloppy play and partly down to Millwall closing us down very well.

Patterson was probably happy to have a shot from the edge of the box fired straight at him about five minutes before the break, as Millwall created another opening, and just when we were thinking we can go in for oranges all square, Millwall broke the deadlock.

Sunderland v Huddersfield Town - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Ballard is a great player but has to take some of the blame for the opening goal of the game for me. He committed himself forward of the back line to break down a midfield move, and while he won the first ball he left himself short for the second one, resulting in a foul on one of the Millwall midfielders.

The ref (who had an odd game rather than a great or terrible one, more on that later) allowed advantage to Millwall, and a good cross from the Millwall wide man Norton-Cuffy (who impressed me all afternoon) was well finished by Nisbet’s left peg on the volley, to give Millwall a lead they arguably slightly deserved at half time.

O’Nien had another half chance in stoppage time which he connected with poorly and put wide, hence Sunderland headed into the away dressing room a goal down after 45 minutes plus stoppages, and we were looking in trouble yet again.

Sunderland vs Huddersfield Town Sky Bet Championship Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The second stanza

The gaffer made no changes to the eleven players at half time, but it was Millwall who came back out more on the front foot, with another wide move coming off and another ball being zinged across our box shortly after the pause, only for no Millwall player to arrive to complete the job.

It seemed to me for the first 15 minutes after the break we went back to overcomplicating things when simple first time passes and quick ball may have done way more for our progress and possession. We repeatedly got close to the Millwall final third but then lost the ball, while at the other end we were lucky to survive occasions such as Trai Hume being pressed in possession ten minutes into the second period, which could easily have given Millwall a good chance to double their lead.

A few minutes before the hour point, in true Mowbray fashion, our first subs were made with Roberts, Pritchard and Dack coming on for Aouchiche, Burstow and Ba. None of the departing players did anything spectacular for me nor were they super poor. The service to Burstow was once again not great, but at 1-0 down with half an hour to go, the dice were rolled by Tony to see what we could get.

Within moments we were almost two goals down, after two of our defenders failed to communicate with each other in our defensive third, giving Millwall a free cross into the box, but thankfully the cross was cleared without damage. Shortly after that though, Roberts started to turn his markers inside out and advanced up the pitch very well, and if someone had gambled on a run into the box on the 59th minute they would have had a tap-in from Roberts’ efforts. The way we are playing just now, it didn't really surprise me that nobody was there to benefit from Paddy’s good work.

Leicester City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by James Holyoak/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Immediately following that, I found myself screaming “someone bloody SHOOT!” on the hour, when great interplay between Roberts and Pritchard seemed to lead to both claiming “yours”. Like most watching the game, I was desperately keen for Patrick to smash it at goal and take a shot at getting us level - if you don’t shoot, you don’t score. At times, when players are low on confidence these things do tend to happen, but I was starting to wonder if we would get anything from the game at all.

One of our best chances of the second half came around five minutes after the hour, when the persistent wide man Clarke made a great jinking run to the byline, only to see Bradley Dack clip the resulting low cross wide of the near post. This led to a period of very open play, where Patterson saved well at one end, and soon after Ballard put a squared ball over the bar from close range after another good run by Roberts created yet another attacking opening. While we hadn’t really played that well, the impact (especially of Patrick Roberts) seemed to be giving us a chance to get back into it.

After Huggins won a corner with some welcome grit and determination we failed to do much with it, but when the ball dropped to Jack Clarke and he started a mazy run into the box the most controversial decision from the Ref came into play.

Clarke’s run was very good, and when he was taken down by a Millwall defender I was shouting loudly for a penalty, which to my joy was awarded by the man in black. On review, however, it did seem the defender had glanced the ball and altered its direction a little ahead of contact with Clarke’s shin pads. Hmmm.

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

That all aside, Clarke stepped up and did his job, converting the spot kick with a hard and low shot under the Millwall stopper who went the right way but could not prevent the net from bulging.

Phew, we were back to 1-1, and about 12 minutes to play of normal time.

Post the equaliser, while I expected Sunderland to kick on it was Millwall who seemed less willing to settle for a point a piece. A Patterson error around the 81st minute almost gave Millwall the lead back, but moments later young Anthony showed us his best attributes, saving well when one on one against Millwall’s attack line, who were clean through.

We were then fortunate again when a deflection three minutes from time came back off Patterson’s left hand post to be tapped in by Millwall, only for the ref to point out the linesman’s flag was up for off side, denying the goal. This was a decision by the officials that looked right on replay, but we all know these decisions often don’t go our way. Another phew.

The four minutes of added time were hard battled by both teams, with Clarke and Pritchard linking up but unable to create a shot on goal late on. Roberts rounded off a pretty good sub performance, tracking back to dribble out of our defence to prevent Millwall creating a late chance too.

Final thoughts

The game ended 1-1, a point which we would likely be happy to take when 1-0 down, but this was another performance where we were way below our best. We could well have lost the match if not for the erroneous call made by the referee half an hour into the second period.

Tony and the coaching team have likely quelled the rising calls for a change in Mowbray’s tenure, however there remains a lot of work to do to get back to our confident and free-flowing footballing that we haven't seen for a hell of a long time.

Next up we have a real challenge against West Brom in an early kick-off at home next Saturday. Back to the drawing board with a draw for Tony and the boys, but another far from great performance ahead of that.

Let’s hope the lads can build from that away draw, as they will need every iota of ability they can muster against a team who very narrowly lost against Leicester, while we struggled away in London to yet another bottom half team.

At least none of our old boys scored against us eh…

Millwall v Stoke City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Henry Browne/Getty Images

Pause for thought


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