Janaury signing shines as Portsmouth perils offer hope: six things we learned from Sunderland's draw at Oxford
Sunderland were held to a 1-1 draw at Oxford United in a clash which offered plenty of lessons for Jack Ross' side.
Jimmy Dunne's header was cancelled out by a late Marcus Browne effort as the Black Cats suffered another blow in the race for promotion.
But while the result was a disappointing one, Ross will have learnt plenty from the trip to the Kassam Stadium.
Here's six key lessons we took from the Black Cats' visit to the Yellows:
Jack Ross has a clear role defined for Grant Leadbitter
There were some questions asked when Sunderland unveiled Leadbitter - after all, central midfield was arguably the one position in which there was plenty of depth.
But in his first two outings for the Black Cats, the former Middlesbrough midfielder has more than displayed his value to the side.
And it seems Jack Ross has a key role in mind for the experienced midfielder.
To borrow a phrase from across the Atlantic, Leadbitter operated as something of a quarterback against Oxford.
Dropping deep, the midfielder regularly picked up possession from the centre backs before looking to distribute the ball into more advanced areas - and particularly into the flanks.
Such a role is vital on poor pitches, such as that at the Kassam Stadium, and is a useful way of deploying a 'Plan B' if required.
Sunderland should end their player of the year vote now
Seriously, they should. Surely nobody can usurp Jon McLaughlin.
While it's arguably not a good sign when your goalkeeper is man of match, the stopper's impact this season has been nothing short of phenomenal.
He impressed again at Oxford, making three fine stops to keep the visitors at bay,
A clean sheet was elusive, but the scoreline could have been far worse were it not for the Scot.
Set pieces have been a training ground focus
An event so rare it's something of a surprise that 'I was there' shirts aren't yet in production.
But Sunderland scored from a set piece at Oxford - and in attacking sense, they looked vastly improved.
The aforementioned Leadbitter seems to have taken over the responsibility for corners and put in a string of fine deliveries - the one headed home by Dunne was nothing short of superb.
These have clearly been a training focus and, if they continue to be worked at, cold prove a useful weapon for the Black Cats in the final weeks of the season.
Charlie Wyke can - and will - play his part in the promotion race
The summer signing has perhaps been underwhelming since his return from injury, but the striker proved at Oxford that he still has a part to play.
Brought on early in the second half, Wyke's hold-up play and physicality helped to relieve some pressure as Oxford looked to turn the screw.
When Sunderland did get forward, he looked a handful - and he looked effective in a front two alongside Will Grigg.
Some food for thought for Ross, perhaps.
Sunderland can't afford to repeatedly switch off
While the equaliser came late, warning signs had been there.
Oxford has breached the Sunderland backline several times, with only McLaughlin's heroics keeping them out.
It was surely only a matter of time until the hosts made the Black Cats pay.
Sunderland can't keep switching off defensively and expect not to be punished for it - and this is an area that must improve.
There will be twists and turns aplenty before May
While Sunderland may now sit 11 points off the League One summit, there is no need to panic.
There will be plenty of twists and turns before the season is out which will undoubtedly affect the promotion race.
Portsmouth are perhaps the perfect example of this - weeks ago they looked nailed on for promotion, but a blip in form has seen them slide away from contention.
Sunderland, therefore, need not worry just yet.