Inside Sunderland's improving defensive partnerships and what it's like playing in front of Jon McLaughlin
What is the difference between a good side and one that wins promotion, or a title?
There are a myriad of factors and Sunderland will feel that their three consecutive away wins showed them ticking a lot of the boxes.
Resilience. Unity. Clinical finishing. Major contributions from substitutes.
One crucial factor that separates the best from the rest is a goalkeeper who wins points.
Particularly at the top end of the league, one whose concentration is exemplary and who can command his box.
Jon McLaughlin showed that on Tuesday night, two outstanding blocks preventing Sunderland falling behind to a vibrant Doncaster team with their tails up.
Within minutes the Black Cats were ahead.
Watching McLaughlin narrow the angle as Mallik Wilks and then Matty Blair spurned their openings called to mind Brian Clough, who upended traditional footballing wisdom by splashing out on Peter Shilton shortly after arriving at Nottingham Forest.
On Shilton, he said: “The opposition might get through our midfield.
“Very occasionally, they might get beyond Larry Lloyd and Kenny Burns.
“But when they’d done all that, when they thought they were clear, they’d look up and see him standing there with shoulders like Mr Universe and wonder where the goal had gone.”
Clough would repeatedly remind his directors that Shilton was winning his team ten points a season.
McLaughlin is well on track for that.
His performances have been a major bonus after last season’s travails between the goalposts and that Sunderland signed him on a free is the icing on the cake.
Ross moved quickly and decisively to sign McLaughlin after landing the job.
In recent games it has been abundantly clear why.
For the defence in front of him, it is a major boost.
Jack Baldwin is thriving at the heart of Sunderland’s rearguard but he is thrilled to have such a model of consistency as the last line of defence.
“Big Jon’s the last line of defence and he bailed us out a couple of times which is a relief for us as defenders,” he said.
“We like it to never get to that point but when it does we can rely on the big man to do the business and he kept us in the game on Tuesday. It was a crucial time in the game.
“We like to think not many teams in this league will be able to carve us open by playing football but if and when they get in behind our defence the big man between the sticks is more than capable of doing the job as he proved at Doncaster, with his big saves at Bradford, and on several other occasions.
“He’s a top man and when you see him pull off them saves it’s a little boost for you and probably a bit demoralising for the opposition as well. They’ve got a tough task trying to get past him.
“We hope to not rely upon it too much but I don’t know how to explain the feeling of having a goalkeeper you can trust in... he’s brilliant with his feet, he’s comfortable playing his football, he’s comfortable kicking it long when he needs to,” Baldwin added.
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“I’ve seen him switching the play when you don’t expect it and then there’s the bread and butter of making saves and coming to collect things, and when he does that it’s a massive relief for us as defenders when he does that.”
Of course, Sunderland’s clean sheets have owed much to Baldwin’s performances and a blossoming partnership in defence.
The 25-year-old has quickly become a regular under Jack Ross and alongside Tom Flanagan, he is starting to deliver the clean sheets that his performances deserve.
Flanagan in particular has been a major presence in the last two games, now back at his best following an unfortunate injury just days before the season began.
“I enjoy playing alongside Tom,” Baldwin said.
“He’s played in the Championship and he’s won promotions [from League One] so he’s experienced at this level and higher.
“It’s good for me having only played at this level because I can see what’s got to be done and he’s vocal on the pitch.
“He drags me through and I’d like to think that at times I drag him through as well so it’s a good partnership, we can shout at each other and we know it’s for the good of the game.
“Back-to-back clean sheets as defenders is like scoring week in, week out so it’s good that we’re finding our feet and pulling out the clean sheets because we’ve scored in every [league] game we’ve played in this season so we know we’ll create chances,” Baldwin added. “It’s good that things are starting to come together at our end of the pitch.”
The Doncaster win was certainly a stern test for the defence but Baldwin is bouyed by the way he and his fellow defenders are beginning to build a platform for his team to capitalise later in games.
“It was a bit of a frantic start to the game. We were drawn into a game we weren’t comfortable in and I found myself in places I shouldn’t have been. We were wide open at times,” he said.
“But we regrouped at half-time and we know we can score so as long as we kept things right at our end of the pitch we knew we were going to create chances.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be an easy game because they like to play some good stuff but at the same time they like to put themselves about a bit as well so it’s a good combination.
“I worked with their manager [Grant McCann] at Peterborough so I know he likes to play football and he’s got them playing some decent stuff but thankfully we came out on top.
“In the last couple of games we’ve got in level at half-time with a clean sheet and we always feel we’re going to come on stronger in the second half of games,” Baldwin added.
“Games aren’t won and lost in the first half but getting in at half-time with no goals conceded, it’s not a problem if we haven’t scored any ourselves because we trust our fitness and we know we’ve got strength on the bench as well.
“As long as we’re solid, we know we’ll be fine.”
Manager Jack Ross will see his defensive options bolstered in the coming days and weeks.
Bryan Oviedo is now available after suspension, while Glenn Loovens is expected to return to full training on Thursday.
They will have a tough task getting back into the team, hwoever, with Reece James impressing in Oviedo’s absence.
Adam Matthews has also been impressing in recent games and added to his promising form by delivering the assist for Chris Maguire at the Keepmoat Stadium.