Phil Smith's verdict: Exploring the major positives behind one of Sunderland's best wins this season

In the early stages of the game it felt like every other League One awayday for Sunderland.

Sunday, 24th February 2019, 10:49 am
Updated Sunday, 24th February 2019, 10:52 am
Grant Leadbitter's arrival has been a major boost for Sunderland

In the early stages of the game it felt like every other League One awayday for Sunderland.

A bumper crowd, a cup tie feel and a home side determined to get on the front foot.

Grant Leadbitter's arrival has been a major boost for Sunderland

Bristol Rovers also played in just about the most direct manner possible, every loose ball and pass fired into the channel or over the top of the Sunderland defence.

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In short, then, it was exactly the kind of challenge that Sunderland have not always found easy this season.

So this must go down as one of the best performances of the campaign, given that the Black Cats scored two and should have had a hatful more, all while Jon McLaughlin was completely untested.

It was not exactly free-flowing football but on a short, tight pitch and against a team like this, it was never going to be.

As Jack Ross said post-match, it was about being robust and trusting in the attacking players to do their job when the opportunity presented.

Sunderland did that, and it was particularly encouraging to see the January additions make a real impact in making the team look more balanced and equipped for the test.

At the Stadium of Light it has been a challenge for Jimmy Dunne, distribution clearly the aspect of his game in need of the most work and when the emphasis has been on Sunderland to break teams open, it has not been easy.

But this performance showed exactly why Ross brought him in.

Though Tom Flanagan and Jack Baldwin battled well through the middle part of the season, it was clearly that the Black Cats were lacking physicality in defence.

Dunne’s key strength is attacking and winning the first ball, something he did time and time again here.

Headed clearance after headed clearance, making Rovers’ attempts to cause havoc in the box one-dimensional and easily rebuffed.

In front of the defence Grant Leadbitter and Lee Cattermole again excelled.

The frustrating draws with Blackpool and Accrington Stanley had actually boosted the mood of the Sunderland manager, who had been concerned about his team’s growing struggles to create chances.

In those two games they had rectified that but against Accrington in particular, Ross felt they had perhaps gone too far the other way.

He felt his side just a little too open, eager to ensure their style of play encouraged the opposition to get out and leave haps, but also to maintain some element of control.

His answer to that was this most experienced duo, who quickly look as if they have been playing together for their whole career.

Leadbitter in particular has already had a major impact.

His set pieces have been excellent, he has snapped away in midfield and has constantly made himself available to take the ball of team-mates who are under pressure.

That was the platform on which this win was built, Aiden McGeady again showing his ruthlessness to seal the three points.

His superb free-kick but Sunderland in a dominant position early in the second half and ensured this game would not go the way of those at Oxford and Scunthorpe.

Rovers finally had to open up and the Black Cats took them apart on the counter, unfortunate not to hand out a real hammering.

While a goal for Charlie Wyke would have made it the perfect afternoon, Ross will have been delighted to see Lewis Morgan in full flight.

It was an eye-catching cameo that showed what a weapon the Celtic loanee can be when he has space to drive into.

It was not a dazzling win or one that will love long in the memory.

It was routine and comfortable.

With 13 games to go and amid the pressure of a promotion battle, that is exactly why it felt so encouraging.