Sunderland must manage the latter stages of games much better
There are not too many games where it has felt like a lead was in such jeopardy. For a period of 20 minutes after they went ahead, Sunderland were completely dominant. Bristol City looked cooked, leggy and like they were just trying to survive.
It was at this moment that they needed to get a second. To be fair to the Robins’ keeper Max O’Leary, he produced a couple of decent stops to keep their side in it. But if the second goal doesn’t come, you need to be prepared to manage the game to a conclusion.
Sadly, Sunderland did not do this. From the 85th minute, Nigel Pearson’s men, revived by fresh legs, began to pile on the pressure.
Despite Tony Mowbray making subs to maintain shape, and give physicality further forward, Sunderland deflated like someone had shot a bouncy castle with a crossbow. In the moments approaching stoppage time, they looked like a collection of 11 individuals who simply wanted to get behind the ball, but lacked shape.
The desire and commitment was there, but the craft and intelligence wasn’t present. It’s not the first time - only last week our gaffer bemoaned our ability to properly manage the latter stages.
In situations like this, you must stick to first principles. Have confidence in your passing game, move for each other and try to break out and stretch the opposition.
None of this happened.
It’s not a criticism, really.
Mowbray in many ways made his subs, threw his chips up in the air and looked to see where they would land, just like Reading. Except this week we were leading instead of drawing. And sometimes that will work, sometimes it won’t. This week it didn’t.
Trai Hume in particular, who I have a huge amount of love and affection for, needs to reflect on what happened. His was a challenge devoid of any thought or intelligence, and was perhaps a product of being given a torrid time by Mehmeti for large periods, because he was fatigued; Bristol City’s number 11, it has to be said, looked top class. It’s not the first time he has played well against Sunderland, netting for Wycombe in the 3-3 draw at Adams Park in January last year. It would be no surprise to see him playing top flight football in the not-too-distant future. Good luck to the lad, he was a pleasure to watch.
But, back to Sunderland, this will help Mowbray learn about this group of players, and they in turn will also draw on these events, as it was preventable.
They will be stronger for the experience.
In many ways, the point was a helpful reality check for the team
This is an exciting, talented squad. Given their experience (how many have played a full season of professional football before?) these results will happen. The fact Sunderland currently sit in 5th position is to their eternal credit.
However, there is always room for improvement. And yesterday has given pointers to how to improve.
Ultimately, you cannot win them all.
Mowbray talked before the game about not being overconfident.
To keep perspective. To remain focused.
Of course this may not have happened, but with youthful exuberance comes confidence, and possibly arrogance. But also frustration. Now the boys have a chance to channel this frustration into Rotherham on Tuesday night, and not to think they can just turn up and win.
Given the attitude they have displayed in the season to date, that’s unlikely to happen. But taken together, you would rather take a hit on Saturday, and get motivation to take all three points in midweek, rather than win, and slip up in South Yorkshire.
The experience though will be invaluable.
Next season, if Sunderland do not go up, you can guarantee as sure as night follows day that they would win this type of fixture. Let’s face it, throughout the years there have been plenty of moments where they could have lost a game like Saturday.
Neil and Michut are improving at a frightening rate
Isn’t it a pleasure to watch these two in action right now? Once again, Dan Neil has shown that he has the quality and potential to go all the way to the top. On a number of occasions on Saturday, he combined his tackle-touch-pass combination to begin an attack that his midfield counterparts simply had no answer to.
Clearly, he has done a lot of work to improve this side of his game, and a large part of the credit should go to the coaching staff for working with him on this key part of his game. For a long time, it has been obvious that Neil simply needed little tweaks here and there - mainly positional - for him to be transformed into a top quality Championship midfielder. Which there is no doubt you can say he now is. Excitingly, there is more to come.
His partner in the middle, Edouard Michut has displayed the type of progression which most would not have thought possible in such a short period of time. On Saturday he was absolutely superb, and you were left in no doubt that he was in charge out there. It really did feel like he owned the midfield. Received the ball in space? I’ll ping a beautiful through ball. My opponent takes a loose touch? I’ll nick that and come away with the ball. Take a pass in a tight spot? No worries, I’ll go into traffic and come away with it.
Yes it was a wrench to lose Corry Evans for the remainder of the season against ‘Boro, but this has allowed both men to flourish. Whether Michut joins permanently remains to be seen, but if he does, it could be frightening next year.
How can Joe Gelhardt slot into this system?
You have to feel for Joe Gelhardt. He clearly really wants this, but it hasn’t quite clicked yet. In his time here, he has had three big opportunities to open his account, but didn’t take any of them.
He should take heart from the fact a number of players have taken time to learn, and adapt to our style of play this season. It’s no wonder, can you imagine trying to read what Roberts or Amad is going to do next?
His role as Sunderland’s only fit out-and-out striker is a huge burden for someone of his age and experience, but he really should take solace from the fact it took even our best players time to slot into the way this team plays. The aforementioned Amad in particular didn’t really click until Burnley at home. Remember when he used to take 10 minutes to have a shot, rather than just rely on his spontaneous style of play?
The difference between him and those playing behind him is that it will be difficult for Gelhardt to influence Sunderland’s style of play - Amad and co just do their thing and you need to be ready when the ball comes your way. Ross Stewart, who it feels cruel to compare anyone to, is one of the very few players who have a bearing on what our creative players do, simply because he defends so beautifully from the front.
So what the 20-year old does need to do is sharpen his anticipation, play on his toes a bit more, and make sure he’s in those dangerous areas, basically, a lot quicker than he was; Roberts’ cross for him in the second half was begging to be stuck away.
His all round play though is clearly very good. Don’t forget, his assist for Clarke’s goal owed more than just to a through ball - he had to take a touch, turn and play it perfectly so Jack didn’t have to check his run. He did very well, and should take heart from his contribution.
There’s no doubt he will make a number of valuable contributions during the course of the remainder of the season, He’s clearly a really talented player, and he should always remember that.
More fans leave early, again. Why?
Seriously, why are people so desperate to get away from the match? As five minutes of injury time was signalled, the bloke and kid in front of me stood up and walked off. Absolutely mind-boggling.
Why? If you choose to leave early can you please tell me what is so important? Will you spontaneously combust if you don’t get out of dodge? If nothing else, everyone has to stand up to see the game while you queue to get out so you can be on the top deck of the number 56 bus. It’s pathetic.
If you have to be at work, fine. If you can’t handle the tension, you should see a psychologist. If you’re catching a flight to Fuerteventura, okay. If you need a dump and can’t wait, alright, come back if you can, but next time take loperamide. But if you just want to “beat the traffic” then that is the most pathetic reason you could possibly conjure.
At St James’ Park barely two hours later, as 10-man Newcastle stumbled to a defeat against Liverpool, no one had left their seat on 85 minutes. Yet at the Stadium of Light, it is painfully noticeable.
Will it take unfavourable comparisons to the Mags to try and get people to properly justify this? Because they’re better at actually watching their team than many of us are - well, if you leave early, you are.
This never used to be such a problem, but it’s getting worse. Stop it. Stay until the end unless you’ll die if you don’t.
If nothing else, the team needs your support. It was no surprise Sunderland played their best football when the atmosphere was at its height. Who knows what difference this would have made in injury time.