Jack Ross outlines Duncan Watmore comeback plans and the key tactical problem he can help solve
Sunderland's 2-2 draw with Millwall was supposed to be the start of a new beginning.
There were two woeful goalkeeping errors but the Black Cats played reasonably well and Chris Coleman’s assistant, Kit Symons, was in the stands ahead of the pair taking charge.
It proved to be another false dawn, however, and perhaps a key reason for that was the injury Duncan Watmore suffered.
Watmore tried to play on after a collision but it soon became clear he had suffered a recurrence of his cruciate knee injury.
It was a hammer blow for the player, the club and the new manager.
Watmore is now nearing a return but Jack Ross has insisted that he will be cautious with the 24-year-old.
The next step is for the forward to train fully with the U23s, then the first team, and then look to make his return.
Ross said: “He’s joined in with me probably for over a week now, but just bits and pieces depending on what we’re doing.
“We have a meeting every morning anyway to discuss what we’re doing.
“Paul Walsh, who is working with Duncan very closely on the medical side of it, will discuss what we’re doing, how he can get involved and when we take him out.
“The people he sees externally are also really positive and happy with where his knee is at. I think there’s a duty of care for us because it is his second injury and it is a bad one to get.
“So there’s no timeframe.
“I want him back and he wants to be back because he looks at us now and wants to be involved, but I keep stressing to him, there’s no pressure.
“He’ll get there and I think it’ll be sooner rather than later but I’ve never put a timeframe on it.
“The next stage will be for him to train fully, probably with the younger players, which I think he is keen on. Psychologically that will be good, slightly less intense and then join us.
“Even when he’s fit, last time he was probably thrown in quite quickly because of the circumstances. It’s important even when we get to that stage that we have that [cautious] approach because it’ll be better for everyone in the long run.”
With that in mind Ross is eager not to put too much pressure on Watmore.
But he knows that he will help solve or at least improve one of Sunderland’s key issues on the pitch, brought into focus by their three-game winless run.
“I think he’s really enjoyed the squad that we’ve put together and the mood around the place,” Ross added.
“On the pitch, we don’t really have a lot that stretches the game. We have a lot of players that like the ball and want to come to the ball, and I think that’s partly why we’re having some issues at the moment.
“Last Saturday I was really frustrated by that. We’d done a lot of work in the build-up on stretching the game and we couldn’t do it, so you end up inviting pressure close to your own goal. Duncan does it with and without the ball, his first thought is to run towards goal. We don’t really have that.
“We’ve tried to encourage Josh to do it a bit more. To be fair to Aiden he’s got a good understanding of when to stretch it and when to come short, but again he prefers the ball into feet.
“Jerome is someone who should because of the attributes he has but again, if you watch him and looked at a heatmap of where he was on the pitch against Burton [it’s too deep].
“To be fair I think it’s part of the modern game, players come to the ball all the time.
“It’s probably Barcelona’s fault!
“Every time we do our ways of attack, if you have to play in tight areas, it’s not easy,” Ross added.
“The distances that defenders have got to travel is smaller. If you stretch the game then you’ll find yourself with more opportunities.
“It’s trying to get these players to do something that’s maybe not quite natural, whereas with Duncan it is.
“If we could get him back and then clone him, that’d be great!
“The game has shifted a lot and become very possession dominated, about being comfortable on the ball. You do need that but there is an element of, any pass more than 20 yards is suddenly just a punt up the pitch. It’s not, even at the very top level, they’re stretching the game, making forward runs. We’re encouraging that.
“So Duncan will help us. I think it’s a big part of why we’ve been penned in at times.”
For now, however, the Black Cats boss will have to work with what he has.
Ross all but ruled out a free agent replacement for Charlie Wyke on Thursday afternoon.