The Championship throws up another twist
If our victory over Blackburn on Wednesday night - which left Jon Dahl Tomasson bemused as to how we’d grabbed the three points after riding our luck against Rovers - was a classic example of weathering a storm and emerging victorious, this was almost the complete opposite and it proved exactly how unpredictable the division is.
When he reflects on the match, Tony Mowbray might feel some solidarity with Tomasson, because it was an immensely frustrating ending to a game we could’ve won.
Overall, we played well on Sunday - albeit without making the crucial breakthrough - and several players turned in excellent individual displays, but when the final whistle blew, it was the small pocket of travelling fans who were jubilant as their team pulled off a smash-and-grab victory.
The winning goal, a scrappy header from a corner, wasn’t exactly an emphatic way for the Bluebirds to bring our winning run to a halt, but it did prove that if you slacken off even for a second there’s often a heavy price to pay.
Ultimately, these kinds of results will occur as the season goes on, and it doesn’t need to equal a crisis every time it happens.
We’ll doubtless win or draw plenty of games that we probably shouldn’t, and we’ll also lose and be pegged back in games when we should be out of sight. That’s simply the nature of the league, and it’s why it’ll be thrillingly unpredictable during 2023/2024.
Sunderland’s striker conundrum
Post-match, there was plenty of focus on the fact that both Mason Burstow and Hemir drew blanks again, and it’s true that neither of them set the Stadium of Light on fire against Cardiff, but I think the issue runs slightly deeper than that.
On a side note, it’s ludicrously early to write either player off and I really hope that Mowbray continues to back them. You could argue that more focus should be on Hemir’s development because he’s our player, but I don’t see Burstow as a lost cause by any stretch of the imagination.
The fact of the matter is that during the past eight months, we’ve had to adapt to being without a genuinely dynamic centre forward, and given the run we went on towards the back end of 2022/2023 (not to mention the eleven goals we scored against Southampton, QPR and Blackburn) we dealt with it remarkably well.
However, it’s obvious that at this stage, we’ve adapted almost too well as the likes of Ross Stewart and Ellis Simms have moved on. It’s quite a bizarre situation, but on the evidence of Sunday, it feels like a fair summary.
At the moment, there’s definitely a lack of cohesion between our wide and central attackers and our centre forwards, and although we haven’t been goal-shy recently, we can’t solely rely on the likes of Jack Clarke turning in two-goal salvos every week.
On Sunday, as has often been the case this season, balls weren’t being played into dangerous areas regularly enough and as a result, Burstow and Hemir were often caught in no-man’s land, unsure as to whether to drop deep or make runs into dangerous areas in anticipation of the ball being played into them.
Utilising an approach that brings the centre forwards into play to greater effect needs to be uppermost in everyone’s mind, and that'll only be achieved via patience and practice.
Dan Neil shines in midfield
As I wrote above, there were several encouraging individual performances on Sunday, chief among which was another superb shift from Neil, who continues to go from strength to strength and is now a key component in the Sunderland engine room.
His relentless drive, boundless energy, and controlled aggression were key as we sought to make progress up the pitch against Cardiff, and his footballing intelligence and awareness of space have improved immeasurably after some tough experiences during his first Championship season.
In Corry Evans’ and now Pierre Ekwah’s recent absence, Neil - still only twenty one and a relative rookie at this level - has assumed the responsibility and is now dictating games to a far greater degree.
As we saw against Blackburn, he's also got a keen eye for goal and I’d love to see him getting his name on the scoresheet more often. He’s got everything in his armoury to become the complete Championship midfielder, and he’s repaying the faith shown by Tony Mowbray on a weekly basis.
Some promising cameos from our summer signings
Sunday saw a long-awaited Sunderland debut for Nazariy Rusyn, and when the Ukrainian entered the fray late on, he was given a rapturous Wearside welcome before showing some promising touches and runs during his brief appearance up top.
After a long and sometimes frustrating transfer saga, everyone had been keen to see what Rusyn could offer, and on this evidence, it seems like he could be another promising addition to the squad.
Adil Aouchiche looked extremely classy when he came on, and if Clarke is the epitome of the socks-round-your-ankles, laid back English approach to wide play, Aouchiche could add some exciting Gallic flair to Sunderland’s attack if given time.
He appears to be blessed with ample confidence and the skill to back it up, and if he starts against Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough this Friday, we’ll hopefully get an even clearer idea of what he’s all about and what he could contribute for us this season.
Even in defeat, there were some positives to take, and it’ll give Mowbray some decisions to make ahead of our next Championship game.