The Sunderland mid-season verdict and why Josh Maja remains vital to League One promotion push

There was a spell in the second half, either side of Duncan Watmore's introduction, when Sunderland looked good, very good.

Sunday, 30th December 2018, 11:08 am
Updated Wednesday, 9th January 2019, 02:31 am

They kept the ball well, patient but purposeful, opened up gaps and got their dangerous wide players into advanced positions.

Most importantly of all, Shrewsbury, who had countered intelligently all game, resorted to booting it straight back up the pitch when they finally got hold of it.

Josh Maja has 13 league goals this season

Sunderland were able to apply the pressure again and a winner seemed inevitable.

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It didn’t come, but had the Black Cats played like this for 90 minutes then they would surely have emerged as winners.

In the opening half hour they were sluggish.

Too often they tried to force it, sloppy on the ball and when the wingers did receive it, they invariably were just short of the pace needed to make something happen.

It looked ragged, but it is a key tenent of Jack Ross’s style to make the pitch as big as possible and to try and isolate his talented wingers against their markers.

When as a collective the team is off the pace, it is inevitable that they will cough up the ball in dangerous areas.

So it was a game when the result frustrated but we saw so many of the good things that leaves this side ultimately very well placed at the midway point.

Again they came from behind.

Again they were avoided defeat on home turf.

They scored an excellent goal, and continued their record of scoring in every league game this season.

Even when so many key individuals dropped off their best levels, they got something out of the game and should have ended up with more.

The way they played in the second half showed they have total belief in the gameplan and style the coaching staff is asking them to execute.

At the halfway stage, they remain above the two-points-per -game ratio that invariably delivers automatic promotion.

Win their two games in hand and they will be in the top two.

They still have Portsmouth and Luton to play at home.

Still, the frustration at the final result nags.

In isolation it is not overly damaging but it is the fifth home draw of the season.

That’s a record which Jack Ross quite rightly admits will put Sunderland in danger of missing out on their overall goals if replicated over the second half of the season.

There is no particular pattern to those draws.

Against Oxford and Peterborough, red cads hamstrung the Black Cats.

Fleetwood played well and against Wycome and Shrewsbury, Sunderland were simply too sluggish on the ball for large periods.

On both of those occasions they were also punished for failing to defend a high ball into the box.

Despite their two defeats, Sunderland have generally been more ruthless away from home than they have at the Stadium of Light.

They are a good side in a good position, but quite obviously one that can make improvements.

Set pieces at either end leave a lot to be desired, though the return of Charlie Wyke will help. In midfield they will surely improve when George Honeyman returns and Lee Cattermole and Max Power get more minutes after recent absences.

The first half of the season has been good and with two high-quality attackers nearing full fitness, there is every confidence in a better second half.

Still, no one should be blasé about the potentially damaging exit of Josh Maja.

Ross still hopes Maja will stay but should he not agree a deal by next week’s deadline, it is hard to see how Sunderland could avoid a sale.

There is an ongoing debate about Maja’s all-round game, but this was another example of why that criticism, while not entirely unfair, misses the mark.

His outstanding finishing, the composure inside the box that so many opponents have not had, has won points when Sunderland have dipped below their best levels.

In a long season that will happen to every team on occasions, and that is why natural goalscorers are at a premium.

Sunderland’s new regime have pushed hard to show Maja his future is on Wearside, but they will be frustrated that didn’t happen over a year ago.

Maja’s promise was clear when he thrived on the service of Jeremain Lens and Wahbi Khazri on pre-season.

Not acting then on that rich potential could prove costly.

Make no mistake, it will make Jack Ross’s job harder if he goes.

For now, though, the signs remain good even if ‘frustration’ was very much the keyword on Saturday.