Phil Smith's verdict: A night of missed opportunity for Sunderland and the players keen to impress Jack Ross

This was only the second time this season that Sunderland have not scored a goal.

Wednesday, 12th December 2018, 1:39 pm
Updated Wednesday, 12th December 2018, 1:40 pm
Sunderland struggled to create openings on a disappointing night at the Stadium of Light

It was already their 26th competitive game of the campaign.

That juxtaposition neatly captures both how good a season this has been for the Black Cats so far, and just how far short they fell of their usual levels against a tidy Walsall team.

Sunderland struggled to create openings on a disappointing night at the Stadium of Light

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Dean Keates’ side were never truly tested by the Black Cats, who in the absence of Aiden McGeady and Lynden Gooch badly lacked that explosive talent around the opposition box.

Jerome Sinclair was handed a big opportunity to impress, particularly given Josh Maja’s struggles at Accrington days previous.

But his display reflected that of the team as a whole, sloppy and off the pace.

By the time Christmas comes around the Black Cats will already have played 30 times.

This was the first time when that challenge looked to have got the better of them.

They were sluggish in their movement and poor in possession.

Walsall were able to stay in their shape and rely on their lively wingers to carve out opportunities at the other end.

It was a disappointing night and there will be a sense of missed opportunity.

Bolton Wanderers present beatable opposition in the third round given their malaise, an afternoon that would have given Sunderland a chance to lay to rest another demon from last season.

Though the FA Cup was never a winnable competition, there remained the tantalising prospect of a tie against Premier League opposition somewhere down the line.

That would have been a fine opportunity to showcase the club’s remarkable revival to a wider audience.

Pragmatically, however, Ross will know that to achieve his goals this season, dropping out is far from the worst scenario.

Every further win in the cup would have further piled up the fixtures down the line.

This flat performance only underlined the need to ensure that his attacking players retain the dynamism that has produced such a steady stream of goals this season.

The Checkatrade Trophy, for all its faults, means that the prospect of cup glory is not over for another season.

Perhaps the biggest consequences of this performances will be how it shapes Ross’s selections in the weeks to come.

This was a big chance for some players to stake a claim ahead of the frenetic festive period but whether they did so is debatable.

Sunderland badly lacked the quality of McGeady, whose free role in recent weeks has made him the fulcrum of the team’s attacks.

There was once a time when he seemed a luxury player, a potential January sacrifice in the drive for financial stability.

That is a distant memory now.

In midfield, Dylan McGeouch was tidy and made some crucial interventions, but the fact that he was again hooked early in the second half suggests that Ross is looking for greater urgency in midfield.

Getting that balance between posing a threat and protecting the defence remains a fine one.

Neither Jerome Sinclair nor Bryan Oviedo did enough to suggest that Josh Maja and Reece James need to worry about their position in the short-term.

The biggest positive without question was seeing Duncan Watmore trouble the Walsall defence by making some lively runs into the channel.

The ball didn’t quite fall for him but already, he is changing the picture for Ross.

Quite simply, no one else instinctively makes the kind of runs he does and he will be some weapon, particularly when turning a game from the bench.

It was a flat night, one of the few occasions this season when it has been a chore to watch Sunderland.

That only underlines how well they have done so far this season.

Achieve their goals in the league, and this third defeat of the season will be quickly forgotten.