Sunderland didn’t lose to Ipswich Town at the Stadium of Light last Sunday because they were missing a second striker. There, I said it.
I’m not denying that we’ll need cover there over the course of the season if reality is going to have any chance of matching pre-season ambition. Obviously, we will. But as others have said, that ain’t gonna happen immediately just because we followed up the defeat with a disappointing cup exit to Crewe (which might anyway be a blessing in disguise as a long season drags on).
In the meantime, I think there’s a few other key things I hope the team can improve against Preston which will see us right on Saturday, and for the duration of the season.
I doubt these are entirely original thoughts, but putting them in one place helps focus my mind, at least, on the fact the team can do things beyond Kristjaan Speakman’s control to improve results in the now.
Solidify the defence
Not to sound like Jack Ross, or Heaven forbid even David Moyes, but we shouldn’t have to score three goals at home to win a game. Not even peak Ross Stewart could be expected to deliver that on a regular basis. If we are going to be as solid on our travels this season as last, and improve that all-important home record as well, then we can’t defend as we did at times against Ipswich.
I am a big Luke O’Nien protector, and Tony Mowbray has likewise said he sees him and Dan Ballard as our starting central defensive pairing for the foreseeable. The pairing had a pretty shaky start to life last time out, but we know that both possess qualities that should make them solid enough given time to gel as a central defensive two. I’m hoping that they will have spent this week working on their cohesion and positioning in counter-attacking situations like the one that resulted in Ipswich’s second goal. If Mowbray understands one thing, it should be that, so I’m quietly confident they can sort this out quite quickly, especially with both having been rested in midweek.
It’s also worth saying that Ipswich’s first goal was pretty lucky, and that both O’Nien and Ballard showed why the manager has such confidence in them in other phases of the game, O’Nien being as influential across the pitch as ever (including that goal-line clearance) and Ballard using his heft to good effect, even as a stand-in centre forward at one point.
For now, you or I might like to see Danny Batth added to the mix to provide the marshalling qualities and steel he undoubtedly brought to us as a star turn in 2022/23. Jenson Seelt and Nector Triantis may also come to the fore as the season goes on.
Uncertainty over their quality and fitness, and Batth’s future at the club, mean that Mowbray’s hand has somewhat been forced, however. As such, I have faith in his choice - better to allow Ballard and O’Nien to learn to guard Anthony Patterson’s goal together now, rather than having to learn to do so without Batth if he departs.
If they can’t get their act together by September and Batth stays or one of Seelt or Triantis comes proves their worth, then he can revisit it. Simple(-ish).
Having tried to give our defence a bit of a free pass for a rickety start to the season, I would add that they were left quite exposed at times against Ipswich. Again, this is explicable.
Jobe Bellingham is new to the team, and to being expected to be a regular starter in a team with top half ambitions at that, while Corry Evans’ continued absence means Dan Neil and Pierre Ekwah are left to compensate for his experience with their youthful exuberance.
This is a midfield with enormous upside, as we saw glimpses of both at the beginning of the Ipswich game, and again towards the end. However, it is also one that is capable of getting a bit lost when the momentum of a game swings against us, and I felt this was quite clear in the opening forays of the second half last Sunday.
Only the crossbar saved us from going 3-0 down at one point in that second half, at which point things could have gotten really ugly. At this stage we were wide open, leaving our new aforementioned central defensive pairing scrambling for cover repeatedly, which just isn’t really fair on them, especially when neither of them are Usain Bolt.
Neil in particular later conspired to drag us back into the game, but our openness could have put it entirely beyond reach by that time, and if only we had been a bit tighter in the 45-65 minute period of the game, then we might well have gone on to win.
The fact that having a man (probably unjustly) dismissed brought us back into things points to the fact that our midfield aren’t lacking the ability or legs to grab a game by the scruff of the neck, but that the game drifted perilously close to total disaster beforehand shows that the young lads need to learn to master a full 90 (or 100+...) minute game better.
Once more, I’m pretty happy thinking that this should come with time, but for now Mowbray might want to think about instructing one of Ekwah or Neil to keep more than one eye on the back door at key stages of games, especially as and when the more attack-minded Bradley Dack begins to be rotated with Bellingham in front of them.
I also think using Pritchard more (as many others have pointed out) can give us greater control in games, but I suppose the same Danny Batth-style caveats apply as to why Mowbray is reticent to rely too heavily on him.
Another argument in favour of reintroducing Pritch from the start, or bringing him on earlier in games, is that we failed to get adequate service to the striker we do have on Sunday.
The now-anicent 20 year old (feliz aniversario, by the way) Hemir showed in pre-season that if you land a ball on or near his noggin, then goals will likely follow. Yet against Ipswich, I can barely recall such a situation being created, despite Hemir himself winning some tasty flick-ons and looking keen to get involved (although maybe less so out of possession, as noted elsewhere). It isn’t really how we played for much of last season in the absence of a target man, but we do get the ball around the edge of the box with regularity so I think Mowbray needs to encourage the team, and his wingers especially, to be bolder with getting the ball into the box earlier at times.
Hemir had admittedly drifted out of the game by the time Mowbray hooked him on Sunday, but I think he may have had reason to consider the need to play Hemir at the same time as Pritchard in hindsight. Where Bellingham makes good runs into the box, like the one he so nearly scored from on a rebound in front of the Roker End, Pritchard plays the 10 role more by linking play across the edge of the box, and getting balls into the area from the apex of the box.
This means our wingers get more of the ball, and more space, as well as bringing in overlapping full backs as opposition wingers tire later on in games.
As a result, I would expect Hemir to get more headed chances, as well as ones to feet like he had in the second half last time round.
For this reason, I’d be tempted to tinker and put Pritchard in from the start against Preston.
He controls the flow of a game and can open up opposition defences, which is a rare combination at any level.
Then, as the game gets stretched, Bellingham can come in to make darting runs and bring his high-tempo, tough tackling game to bear.
This could either be as a replacement for Pritchard, or as a more attacking replacement for Neil or Ekwah depending on the game situation.
Either way, we clearly have decent options in the squad that can help us get good results while we wait for that all-important attacking acquisition - I’ve barely even touched on the quality and creativity that Bradley Dack and Chris Rigg can bring to the party here.
If we can pair that with more mature game management and a tighter back line, both of which I also think we’re well capable of, then I don’t think we should be too worried despite a wobbly first week of the season.