Phil Smith's Sunderland verdict: Balanced but expansive, Jack Ross is close to finding his best XI

All four of Sunderland's goals showcased real quality but it is worth dwelling on the first two in particular.

Sunday, 23rd September 2018, 10:43 am
Updated Sunday, 23rd September 2018, 10:47 am
Lynden Gooch celebrates his first half penalty

They showed a team that is responding to their manager and learning lessons from their poorer performances in recent weeks.

Jack Ross spoke in the build-up to the game about a key tactical issue that he feels has hampered his side.

Barely able to disguise his excitement at the prospect of being able to call upon Duncan Watmore, Ross spoke of how his squad has a habit of coming to the ball, pushing them into deeper, tighter spaces and making them too easy to defend against.

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In an eight-minute goal glut against Rochdale they showed they are improving.

To start with, Jack Baldwin plays a wonderful chipped pass into the channel.

Chris Maguire, who was nothing short of outstanding here, has drifted into space. From the flank he plays the cross and Maja heads home.

Moments later, Maguire has come deep to collect the ball but this time Maja makes the forward run and is able to collect the brilliant pass.

Clearly, Sunderland are boosted by playing on the wide and long Stadium of Light pitch but it was greatly encouraging to see them impose themselves on the opposition again.

The third and fourth goals were no less impressive and some of the football in the second half was excellent.

Dylan McGeouch grew into the game and Lee Cattermole was dominant.

Wretched at the Pirelli Stadium, Jerome Sinclair came on from the bench to lead the lien and despite the game already being long finished as a contest, he was tenacious and made unselfish runs across the front line.

After a difficult few weeks it felt like the Sunderland all had hoped Ross was building.

Of course, the football was not always scintillating and the Black Cats were often lethargic in the opening exchanges.

Aaron Wilbraham missed a great opportunity to put Rochdale ahead after some slack defending and Jon McLaughlin was forced into some excellent saves either side of the half-time interval.

Perhaps there is a lesson there for Ross’s team.

They may not have been imposing early on but having battled their way through that period, they were able to ruthlessly exploit some gaps in the opposition defence as their early energy faded.

The balance in the team was vital.

Away from home Ross is still searching for the right formula but here he reverted to the lopsided 3-5-2, and the addition of Tom Flanagan was key.

No nonsense, disciplined and with a physical presence, he helped shore up Sunderland’s defence considerably.

McGeouch may still be way short of match sharpness but his quality on the ball was clear to see.

This looked as close to Ross’s best team as we have seen for much of the season.

It was not a perfect performance, but it was a controlled and clinical one.

Jack Ross, of course, cut a measured figure after the game.

He is all about consistency and after vowing not to get too low during the short winless run, he will not carried away with one win, particularly not against a very limited side in Rochdale.

But as headed back to Scotland on Sunday for a UEFA Pro Licence event, he will have done so reassured about both the quality and character in squad.

Most importantly of all, about their ability to blend as an expansive and effective unit.