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A point gained but more questions than answers
The only upside of this game was the result, which ensured that two bad losses didn’t become three truly abysmal ones, but the nature of the performance and a multitude of ropey individual displays and yet more baffling substitutions from Tony Mowbray meant that it was hardly a celebratory outcome.
The fact that we escaped with a point thanks to a penalty from Jack Clarke that was borderline at best was a huge relief, but the overreliance on the winger (who actually endured quite a frustrating afternoon up until his success from twelve yards) is just one of the many problems that Mowbray somehow has to try and solve.
The head coach was under pressure coming into this game and when we went 1-0 down, the writing might well have been on the wall as familiar weaknesses emerged and the prospect of another morale-sapping defeat was looming large.
The draw might keep the wolves from the door for another week and it’s important to remember that our league table position isn’t actually that bad, but with home games against West Bromwich Albion and Leeds United to come, will the board make what would be a decisive call and opt for a change of head coach at such a key stage of the season?
Changes made but with mixed results
After the defeats to Huddersfield and Plymouth, Mowbray shuffled the pack once again as Niall Huggins, Pierre Ekwah, Mason Burstow and Abdoullah Ba were drafted into the starting eleven.
Perhaps the head coach was trying to inject some freshness into the team after a stale display in midweek, but as has often been the case recently, it didn’t quite work out how he would’ve hoped.
Burstow endured an immensely frustrating afternoon on his return to London as despite no lack of effort, he often found himself isolated up front and unable to make any real impact.
Ba, meanwhile, turned in an erratic display that mixed some good moments and plenty of attacking drive with some questionable decision making and a litany of poor touches that have often been the hallmark of his game.
Adil Aouchiche also retained his place in the team and seemed to relish the challenge. He took a fair bit of rough treatment from the home side’s hatchetmen, but he never gave up and kept going despite this being a world away from the kind of game he might’ve hoped it would be.
As we expected, Mowbray made a glut of changes deep into the second half, as Bradley Dack made his customary nondescript appearance from the bench and Alex Pritchard did what he did during last season’s trip to South London: brought some calmness to proceedings and helped us to gain a foothold as we eventually grabbed a share of the spoils.
We know that this is a very talented squad, but things just aren’t clicking right now and that needs to change swiftly if we’re to maintain a top six challenge.
Sunderland’s midfield misfires
When fully fit and in form, Pierre Ekwah and Dan Neil are a potent midfield combination, but at the moment, the red and white engine room isn’t operating at full tilt, to the detriment of the team as a whole.
Ekwah was just about OK against Millwall, but he still seems to be feeling the effects of the injury suffered earlier in the season, whereas Neil was unable to find the time and space to play his natural game. The end result was a fragmented display that didn’t give us the platform we most certainly needed if the draw was going to be converted into a victory.
Midfield remains an area of puzzlement for Mowbray, with Jobe Bellingham (wisely rested for this game after a heavy recent schedule) still seemingly viewed as a number ten despite arguably being more suited to an orthodox midfield berth, and Corry Evans and Jay Matete still nowhere near match fit.
In January, the addition of a strong, powerful, defensive midfielder is an absolute must, because as talented as the likes of Ekwah and Neil are, they’re currently being asked to fulfill a role that doesn’t necessarily play to their strengths, and it was certainly noticeable on Saturday.
Defensive deficiencies exposed again
The two goals that Sunderland conceded in midweek were the kind that you’d put your foot through the television after witnessing, and Kevin Nisbet’s well-taken finish at The Den was another example of giving the opposition an absolute freebie when the basics of defending are overlooked.
As the Lions broke down the right with Dan Ballard nowhere to be seen, the ball was floated into the box and Nisbet ghosted in behind a seemingly unaware O’Nien to give the home side the lead. It was a good finish, but it owed as much to our own sloppiness and poor positioning as it did to Nisbet’s own ability in front of goal.
At the moment, Ballard and O’Nien are going through a spell of poor form and as such, costly errors are creeping into their game.
It’s important to remember that the partnership had often worked well together during the early months of the season and that they might emerge from this slump and be better for the experience, but they need to tighten up and quickly, because with two high-profile home games to come, the pressure will be intense.