How Sunderland built the best defence in League One and the big advantage they enjoy
On Saturday Sunderland secured their fourth clean sheet in a row.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, that has coincided with Jack Ross being able to name an unchanged defence for five league games in succession.
Individual errors and enforced rotation meant that in the early stages of the season, Sunderland’s backline was arguably their biggest cause for concern.
Now, they have the best record in League One.
Blackpool had set the early pace in that regard but they have now conceded three times in consecutive games.
With 13 goals shipped in 16 games, Sunderland are now one better than Portsmouth, Barnsley and Bristol Rovers.
They have played one game more than two of those but the improvement is obvious.
After a 1-0 win over Doncaster Rovers, Jack Baldwin hailed his goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin for producing in the big moments.
Sunderland are gifting away fewer chances and collectively are far more resolute than at the start of the campaign, but their outstanding stopper was a key factor that night in a hard-fought win.
It was much the same at Home Park and for Baldwin it is a positive sign.
The centre-back knows this division better than anyone and says that Sunderland’s attacking quality is unique.
Keep it tight at the other end, no matter how, and they’ll be difficult to stop.
“Big Jon’s done brilliantly again for us and we don’t want to call on him too much but when he was on Saturday, he pulled off some big saves,” Baldwin said.
“[Defensively]I think people have sussed out what the league’s about really.
“There were probably some people at the start of the season who didn’t know what to expect but everyone does now.
“It is a good league and some teams don’t necessarily have the same quality in the forward areas so we know if we do our job in staying solid defensively, we’re more than good enough going forward.
“I’ve played in League One all my career so I know what it’s all about but there are probably some lads who’ve come down from the Championship and even higher levels who didn’t know what to expect.
“Clean sheets were hard to come by at the satrt of the season but now everyone knows what it’s about we’re finding our feet. We’re solid and we’ll always score goals.
“Nothing comes easy in this league and it shows how resilient we are as a group,” he added.
“We’ve got some lads putting their bodies on the line for the full 90 minutes.
“As a fan you want to see guys putting their bodies on the line and giving their all to make sure the team gets the best result they can. “A fourth clean sheet on the bounce is brilliant for us.
“I say it all the time but that’s like a striker scoring a goal for us. To get four clean sheets on the bounce is briliant but we’re a team that demands the best from each other and we want five, six, seven – to keep bashing them out, really.”
No player embodies Baldwin’s comments about Sunderland’s attacking quality better than Aiden McGeady.
Derek Adams bemoaned his side’s inability to turn twice as many shots as Sunderland into a result, the individual brilliance of the Irishman setting the visitors on the road to victory.
That ruthless strak in front of goal is proving vital.
“Psychologically it’s probably a bit of a killer because they probably went into half-time thinking they were pretty solid and looking to do the same again,” Baldwin said,
“But Aido has got so much quality he can just click his fingers and he’s away.
“It’s brilliant because you know at this level he can turn anyone inside out.
“He’s proven it at higher levels so it was probably a challenge for him to get his head around coming down to League One and doing the same at this level but he’s a top professional and he showed at Plymouth what he’s capable of. That’s brilliant for us.
“I’m happy I only have to face him on the training pitch!”