The two moments that show exactly how Duncan Watmore changes the picture for Sunderland and Jack Ross

On Tuesday night Jack Ross tried to get the balance right between an honest assessment of his team's performance, and putting it in the context of the wider picture.

Wednesday, 12th December 2018, 9:24 am
Updated Wednesday, 12th December 2018, 9:30 am
Duncan Watmore stepped up his recovery on Tuesday night

Sunderland were so flat, so lacking spark that it would have been an insult to those who turned up to suggest otherwise.

But even those in attendance would be quick to recognise that the league is the priority for the Black Cats and avoiding even greater fixture congestion is, as Ross put it, 'not the worst thing in the world'.

Duncan Watmore stepped up his recovery on Tuesday night

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Sunderland badly lacked an attacking spark in the absence of Aiden McGeady and Lynden Gooch, yet the performance of Duncan Watmore offered a significant positive.

It will be a long time until he reaches his sharpest, perhaps even next season, and there were inevitably signs of rustiness in his play against Walsall.

Two moments, however, showed how valuable he will be in the meantime.

Early in the first half George Honeyman won the ball back in midfield and without pausing, sprung a pass into the channel on the left.

Watmore had made a good run into space and though his two efforts were blocked, that movement is of the kind we simply have not seen from Sunderland forwards this season.

In the second half, Honeyman made what was little more than a hoofed clearance, launching the ball upfield and away from danger.

But the lively Watmore chased it down, winning a thrown in deep in the Walsall half.

This is the kind of thing Ross has not had this season, and something he has regularly talked about.

Speaking back in September, he said: "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 [against Burton] 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.”

Watmore has generally played as a winger in his first team career at Sunderland but a more central role makes sense for Ross in the short-term, both tactically and pragmatically.

Ross will not put too much pressure on the 24-year-old but there us but there is no disguising his satisfaction with his comeback so far.

"I think he's more than capable of playing through the middle," he said.

"I also think that where he's at in his recovery and within games, rather than asking him to continually shift up and down the wide areas, it was the sensible thing to do in those two games.

"It's that balance between the duty of care we have to him in his recovery and how we best use him in games.

"Within that area of the pitch of he gives us something different and you saw that, he offered a threat, that increased sharpness will come with each passing game as well.

"Once the rawness of the loss settles then Duncan is the major positive for us," he added.

"75 minutes is a good chunk of the game and at a far greater intensity than the Checkatrade Trophy game, he'll tell you that himself.

"That was much more like a normal game and that step up was evident.

"I thought he did really well considering, it's a huge absence he's had and he felt it physically in the second half, but to get that under his belt was a massive step forward in his recovery."

Watmore still has a long way to go in a congested fixture list, variety is vital.

At some stage, that direct running and burst of pace is going to be a very welcome addition.