Phil Smith's verdict: Assessing the main Sunderland criticisms as pressure builds for 'massive week'

Jack Ross would probably reject the suggestion that this is the first real pressure point of his Sunderland tenure.

Sunday, 10th February 2019, 9:58 am
Updated Monday, 11th February 2019, 11:32 am
Jack Ross after the 1-1 draw with Oxford United

Firstly, he would no doubt point out that what he is going through now pales in comparison to the challenge of putting a squad together in pre-season, almost from scratch and with relentless uncertainty over who would still be around at the end of the window.

And, as he has always said, anytime Sunderland fail to win a League One game, it will be deemed not good enough.

Jack Ross after the 1-1 draw with Oxford United

So in that sense, a 1-1 draw away at Oxford United was no different.

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Yet there is no doubt that for the first time, Ross finds his selections under real scrutiny.

A lack of fluidity to Sunderland's play, combined with the excellent form of Luton Town and Barnsley, has seen the promotion jitters set in for many.

From the outset, any discussion of Ross needs put into context and there are perhaps two key points to address.

The first is that Sunderland, with their budget and individuals, should be coasting clear at the top of League One. To not be doing so is a failure on the part of Ross.

That's an assessment completely at odds with what is a strong top six, featuring squads who have played together for a far longer period and have hardly been assembled on a shoestring.

Sunderland's wage budget may be the biggest but large swathes of it is used on a small group of players who needed a lot of support and management to get back to anywhere near their best level.

Before the late January swoop for Will Grigg, their transfer spend had been reasonable by third-tier standards but not spectacular.

Throw in the Josh Maja saga, the summer turnover, the pressure of managing a club this size in League One, and to be fourth with games in hand, just two defeats and your promotion fate in your hands, is a result of excellent management.

The second point is an altogether different one and a fair one.

That Sunderland need to improve their attacking output if they are to maintain the points-per-game ratio needed to go up.

The potential solutions to that will depend on your outlook on individual players but might look something like:

- Starting Luke O'Nien in an advanced midfield role

- Replacing Reece James with the more attack-minded Bryan Oviedo (though the Costa Rican was injured in the latter part of this week)

- Getting another striker in the side to support Will Grigg/Charlie Wyke

There is no one solution to break open Sunderland's attacking play and the challenges home and away are very different.

At home they have struggled to break teams down, players coming too deep to gather the ball in trying to make things happen.

Away from home, and this game was an obvious example, they have perhaps lacked a touch of poise and composure on the ball.

In his post-match remarks Ross was clear in suggesting that this particularly game was not one for fluid football.

Oxford United were direct, targeting the Sunderland defence with a constant barrage of long balls over the top.

Conditions and the pitch were poor and so Ross had some justification with that. It's worth noting too that Oxford have taken points off Portsmouth and Barnsley at the Kassam in recent weeks.

In Jordan Graham and Gavin Whyte, they had two of the most dangerous wide players in the league.

It's another quirk of this relentless and brutal division that a raft of sides with decent budgets at the bottom massively underperformed in the opening months of the season and are now closer to their best levels.

In playing down the importance of Jon McLaughlin's contribution and playing up the challenges of playing away from home in League One, Ross was making a clear point that no one should fall into the trap of expecting the Black Cats to walk over teams.

The suggestion was also that suggestions Sunderland are not playing well are over the top.

He has been consistent in saying that any side who wins promotion has to go through periods of churning out results in difficult games.

All season, Sunderland have done that.

Ross quite deliberately shifted the focus to the three upcoming home games.

Win those, he said, and Sunderland could be satisfied with their position.

Fail to do that, and he said he and his players would have to brace themselves for some justified criticism.

Which seems a fair assessment.

The Sunderland boss has much to ponder to get the combinations right for those matches, particularly in midfield where the Black Cats are surprisingly lacking presence.

Ross is now dealing with the inevitable scrutiny that comes with a big squad of players.

January business strengthened Sunderland's options but when the squad is fully fit, there are a lot of tough calls to make.

If performances dip below top gear then there will always be calls for changes.

That is the downside of Sunderland's deadline dash and Ross will know that the arrival of Grigg in particular has raised expectations again.

So far, he has proved remarkably adept at navigating the intense pressure and scrutiny that comes with managing Sunderland.

His calm manner and clear-headed assessments have put the Black Cats in a strong position to achieve their goals.

He has embraced the pressure of this 'massive week' for the club, showing the confidence in himself and his players to get it right.

Do that, and he will be able to call this an inevitable dip, and one that ultimately did no major harm to the season as a whole.

It's worth remembering how well Ross has done to get the club to the stage where the main debate is how to get the club from a good position into an excellent one.

In their last ten league games, Sunderland have taken 19 points, scoring 14 goals and conceding 10.

That's a good record, if just short of what will be required between now and May, particularly in terms of goalscoring.

They are a resilient side and one with really good individual quality, just struggling at the moment to carve teams open regularly enough to kill games off and turn draws into wins.

Freshening up partnerships and structure is one part of that, but time and familiarity is needed.

So any surgery required is minor rather than major, something which Ross deserves a lot of credit for.