Phil Smith's verdict: How Sunderland turned Burton nadir into the start of something special

In any successful season, the path is marked by moments that turned in your favour.

Sunday, 28th October 2018, 10:27 am
Updated Sunday, 28th October 2018, 10:56 pm
George Honeyman celebrates his opening goal against Southend United
George Honeyman celebrates his opening goal against Southend United

Sunderland’s has already had plenty.

From Lynden Gooch’s breathtaking opening day winner to Jon McLaughlin’s penalty heroics at Bradford.

George Honeyman celebrates his opening goal against Southend United

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Sunderland’s one and only defeat so far, however, might be the most significant of them all.

The Black Cats were shown up at Burton Albion, inferior technically but also mentally and physically.

Much soul-searching followed, both in the dressing room and the week that followed.

Since then, they are unbeaten in seven and have won five on the spin.

It has been a run characterised by resilience, individual quality and clever management of resources.

All of that was on show in a 3-0 win over Southend United that was nowhere near as comfortable as the scoreline suggests, yet never really seemed in significant doubt.

At the Pirelli Stadium Jack Ross went for an attacking selection that badly misfired.

Since then, he has found a better balance in his side, one that has been unaffected by the occasional, inevitable minor changes of personnel.

Jerome Sinclair did not play the Rochdale game that followed the Burton defeat but has been ever-present since and his importance cannot be understated.

Capable of battling with centre-backs, his unselfish willingness to make runs off the shoulder and into the channel has been vital for his manager, who bemoaned his team’s inability to stretch the game at Burton and in games previous.

Sinclair’s endeavour has not quite been rewarded with goals yet but the team is stronger for that outlet in pressurised moments.

In defence, Ross is finally able to establish real continuity in selection and it is no coincidence that he has named the same defence in all five games of the winning streak.

That quartet has now delivered three clean sheets in a row.

In front of them, Dylan McGeouch is providing intelligent cover and behind Jon McLaughlin has taken his form from very good to simply outstanding.

The upshot is that Sunderland are able to cope better with the demands of League One opposition, both at home and away.

Earlier in the season a team like Southend might have pushed them very close for a result.

Like Oxford and Fleetwood, they came not to sit back and ride their luck but to be pro-active and positive. They created numerous overloads in wide areas and moved the ball quickly between the lines.

That makes them a threat but Sunderland’s improving balance and experience of the third tier is enabling them to handle it.

Their quality in the final third means they can pounce when their opponents err, as they did for the first two goals as slack Southend passes became Sunderland goals within seconds.

Ross himself continues to impress with his decision making.

Yes, it is a major luxury to go two-nil up on the vast Stadium of Light turf, in front of 30,000 jubilant fans, and be able to bring on players with the quality of Aiden McGeady and Josh Maja.

But it was also brave and clever to sense the opportunity to truly kill the game off, sacrificing McGeouch knowing that McGeady could capitalise on the extra space as Southend pushed for a winner.

Maja, meanwhile, looked at his sharpest for weeks as he battles back from a niggling ankle problem.

Sunderland are strong and can get even stronger still.

Their impressive run is no fluke and show no signs of grinding to a halt.