Analysing the min-rut at Sunderland and the changes Jack Ross could make to lift his side

Jack Ross has rightly been defensive of his side when facing criticism this season but on Saturday it was a touch different.

Sunday, 20th January 2019, 11:32 am
Updated Sunday, 20th January 2019, 11:44 am
Jack Ross has plenty to ponder as Sunderland head into a small break from league action

The Black Cats boss had a firm message for his players after this latest frustrating draw.

They had to see games out better, they had to improve.

Jack Ross has plenty to ponder as Sunderland head into a small break from league action

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A fourth draw in five league games has meant that crucially, for the first time in a long while, they have dipped below the two-points-per-game ratio that Ross believes will get them over the line.

Winning their game in hand on Luton will now only see them draw level with the Hatters, rather than overtaking them as has been the case for a number of weeks.

A sense of perspective is of course needed.

Portsmouth's dip in form means Sunderland are actually closer to them now than they were after the 3-1 defeat just before Christmas.

They have still scored in every league game this season. They are unbeaten since that Fratton Park disappointment and have still only lost twice all season.

The big change is that Barnsley and Charlton, two powerful sides with decent strength in depth, have significantly closed the gap on the top three.

They have momentum while Sunderland feel a little flat.

Whereas the draws with Luton and Charlton were decent results in the context of the table and the season, the poor showing at Scunthorpe United underlined some unavoidable issues.

Ross was typically perceptive after the game, noting that his side were too easily drawn into the emotion of the occasion away from home, rushing their play in the latter stages where calmness was needed.

That too was the case against Luton, particularly after Danny Hylton saw red.

Yet the first half at Glanford Park also reflected a side that seems to have lost its mojo.

Max Power's form has dipped since his return from a draining third red card, while Lee Cattermole has been disrupted by injury and suspension.

In front of them, Aiden McGeady, Chris Maguire and Lynden Gooch have all gone off the boil at a vital point.

That trio have powered Sunderland through the campaign so far but at the moment, their output is mixed and the Black Cats are simply not creating enough clear openings.

On Saturday they relied on Josh Maja's extraordinary ruthlessness in front of goal to get them ahead.

Sunderland face Manchester City U21s on Tuesday night but after that they have a very welcome break.

Ross will have a welcome opportunity to weigh things up, get on the training ground and try and bring some confidence back to the players.

The manager himself alluded to this post-match, saying: "We do a lot of work. We need to reflect if it is the right work, do we need to do more of it, does it come down to different combinations of personnel?

“We need to find answers, me and my staff in the first instance and then the players on the pitch.

“It is not panic stations, I am always optimistic and realistic, but the simple fact is we need to get better at it."

They remain in a good position, but a freshness is needed.

So what could he change?

Bring back Adam Matthews?

No one could watch Sunderland's recent showings and think that there is any problem at full back.

An assist for Reece James on Saturday was fair reward for an excellent run of performances, while Luke O'Nien again did himself justice in an unfamiliar position.

O'Nien has been excellent ever since making the switch but with Sunderland going a little stale, it is fair to wonder if it might be time to get a player full of confidence back in central, advanced areas where he can do real damage.

That excellent goal against Shewsbury Town and his effort against Barnsley is the kind of instinct, poise and confidence currently lacking at the top end of the pitch.

He has been faultless at right back but Adam Matthews was one of Jack Ross' best performers before injury and so Sunderland would lose little if he returned.

Move McGeady back infield?

The Irishman was in talismanic form not so long ago but he is struggling to create at the moment.

In a remarkable comeback against Walsall and a demolition of Barnsley, McGeady was an absolute menace in a free role, roaming from central areas and popping up in dangerous positions.

That 4-3-1-2 system was specifically designed to exploit Barnsley's weaknesses and it is true that in a similar position against Portsmouth, the 32-year-old was indifferent.

Isolating his wingers against defenders is a key tenent of the Ross style at Sunderland but at the moment neither McGeady or Gooch are producing enough.

Perhaps a rest for Gooch and a bit more freedom for McGeady could provide something of a spark, while allowing an extra body to support the two central midfielders.

Partnerships are vital for Ross at the moment and there is the looming question of fitting Charlie Wyke and Josh Maja into the same side.

Who knows where Maja will be when Sunderland return to league action on February 2nd.

If he stays, however, there is no doubting that he is vital.

When he gets the ball in feet near the opposition box there is no player more dangerous in the third tier. Setting up in a way that gets him in those positions frequently will be crucial.

Though he is not yet at his best, Charlie Wyke's performances so far have suggested he can help do exactly that.

A successful debut for Jimmy Dunne also undoubtedly strengthens the option of switching to the lopsided 3-5-2 that Sunderland looked so threatening in earlier in the campaign, particularly at the Stadium of Light.

Bank on the return of key figures?

Ross could of course point fairly to a massive number of wins in the current shape and structure.

He could argue that a dip in form to a number of players at once is the primary cause of the slight dip in results.

Certainly, the drive and tenacity of George Honeyman is a big miss.

His incredible work-rate, the runs into space he makes and also the pace with which he moves the ball, all are notable in their absence.

His return will be key, while Ross will also be pleased that Ethan Robson and Denver Hume are nearing returns.

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Stewart Donald insisted on Sunday morning that by the time Sunderland are back in league action, the squad will be stronger.

Ross believes a poacher is crucial and that certainly tallies with a side that has been unable to kill games off in recent weeks.

The picture has been complicated by an injury to Will Grigg, the player who fits the bill perfectly.

Ross also hinted on Thursday that there are 'one or two areas' he may look to add to if he lands that elusive striker.

At the moment you could make a strong argument that an addition in central midfield or the wide areas would be welcome.

That does of course have to balanced against the return of the players mentioned above and the fact that some of the players struggling at the moment have been genuinely excellent for much of the season.

There is much to ponder for Sunderland in the next ten days.

They have done well to be able to do so from a position of strength, but a small spark is definitely required.