Reflecting back on Saturday’s game, I felt a certain amount of trepidation going into it.
With Sunderland looking out of sorts and underperforming, it felt like it was the perfect storm for Alex Neil to return to his old employers and get the three points.
Whilst predicting a Stoke result would not have been shocking, the circumstances in how it happened would have taken even the most ardent Potters fan by surprise.
The scoreline didn’t really flatter Stoke. They were full value for the win with some excellent play. They frustrated us throughout. They were physical, well set up and street smart ensuring that Sunderland could never find their rhythm, with the opposition slowing the game down at any opportunity.
In many ways, it was the perfect away performance.
That being said, Alex Neil can count himself lucky that Tony Mowbray succumbed to some sort of malfunction, given the sheer ridiculousness of the decisions he made.
Not for the first time, it felt like a game where decisions made by the manager compounded our problems, with some questionable calls to the starting lineup and setup.
Alex Pritchard’s peculiar appearance in a central midfield role was one that nobody was expecting. In his own right, the Londoner is a fine footballer who has been a decent player for us since his arrival at the start of last season yet he certainly is not and will not ever be a central midfielder.
With Pritchard joining Dan Neil in the centre of the park against Stoke’s trio of Will Smallbone, Josh Laurent and the mischievous Ben Pearson, one would have loved to have heard about the manager's thought process when coming to this decision.
Pritchard’s appearance in the middle would have only made sense had we had some injury crisis forcing the manager's hand. With Luke O’Nien, Pierre Ekwah and even Edouard Michut sitting on the bench, it didn’t add up.
It was obvious what sort of game this was going to be. Even the seagulls that were circling the Stadium of Light could have told you what sort of game Stoke were going to bring. Whilst O’Nien has played most of his games in defence this season, his thirst and fearlessness to get stuck into challenges made him conspicuous by his absence.
With Ekwah, I have to ask: when is it going to be the appropriate time for him to start a game? Mowbray’s hesitancy to start these players (along with Ba, Bennette and Lihadji) is beginning to look more and more peculiar given that the players who are consistently starting are underperforming regularly.
Ultimately, his decisions have potentially cost us points in three games in a row now - and with the fixtures that we have coming up, things could end up looking bleak in a few weeks' time after such a strong winter and early new year.
Mowbray’s decisions aren’t the only ones that have been impacting the team of late. The club’s failure to recruit any sort of striker to aid Joe Geldhart is looking more and more season-defining.
Unlike the times when Ellis Simms was fit to replace Stewart, Gelhardt simply looks off the pace or maybe more to the point, very uncomfortable in the role that is being asked of him. He spends a lot of his time with his back to the goal running towards our midfield.
This is clearly narrowing the pitch for us, leaving us with very few options for an outlet further forward.
It seems clear that Geldhart is not suited to our team or our style of play. Why was he left to be the only man holding the torch until the end of the season?
Some may blame Mowbray for being tactically inflexible, but shouldn’t the recruitment team have ensured he had the tools at his disposal that he needed to navigate through to the end of the season?
I find it bewildering that the group of intelligent people that we seem to have running this part of the club allowed this to occur. Regardless of what has been said since the deadline passed, I have no doubt in my mind that we could have found somebody, despite the issues that come with operating in the latter stages of the transfer window.
Some may say that the concession of five goals has nothing to do with Ross Stewart’s absence, but do you think we would have lost 5-1 if we had a proper centre forward up top who could hold the ball up? I doubt it.
The absence of a suitable focal point impacts the entire team and how we play. Without one, our fight to win games becomes extremely complex.
Ultimately, decisions by the important people in the club have probably had a negative impact on the team's performances.
Hopefully it’s something that they learn from when we reflect back in pre-season.
This season has been a successful one - providing we avoid some fatal collapse at the home stretch.
I wonder, with better decision-making, could it have been even better?