Phil Smith's verdict: Sunderland leave Jack Ross bullish even as they drop further off the promotion pace

On Saturday evening Jack Ross looked to brush off the disappointment of another 1-1 draw by looking ahead to 'a massive week'.

Tuesday, 12th February 2019, 11:29 pm
Updated Wednesday, 13th February 2019, 12:27 am
Will Grigg suffered a frustrating home debut for Sunderland

Win three home games and Sunderland would be in an OK position.

Fail to do that, and criticism would follow.

Will Grigg suffered a frustrating home debut for Sunderland

So Ross will be braced for the frustration that will follow yet another stalemate.

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Incredibly, this was the sixth 1-1 draw in just eight league games. It is a dip in results that has seen Sunderland drop off the pace in the push for automatic promotion.

Yet Ross was bullish in his post-match comments and that was not without merit.

The criticism of his side of late has not just been that the results have been mixed, but that the performances have been flat.

Continue that way, not creative enough, not aggressive enough, and bigger problems would follow.

The way the Black Cats struggled against lowly Oxford brought that particular concern to a head.

So Ross was keen to point out that on this occasion, his Sunderland side played well and were far more productive in the final third.

Quite rightly, he said that reproducing this performance every game this season would mean more wins than draws or losses.

Sunderland had more shots, more shots on target, more possession, more clear openings.

If it has been fair to question the Black Cats when they have not done that in recent games, it must be noted when they do.

They provided two glorious chances for Will Grigg, who will surely score plenty between now and the end of the season if that service is repeated.

They battled back from a real wobble at the start of the second half when their structure and shape disappeared, to rescue a point and come close to landing all three.

Ross himself responded to recent failings by freshening up his side and his system, the results mixed.

Duncan Watmore made a big difference on the right flank, carrying the ball well and making excellent runs into the channels that Blackpool struggled to pick up all game.

Lynden Gooch dropped into central midfield, a call that didn't come off but generally speaking, the changes made Sunderland more fluid and more dynamic.

They certainly made the pitch longer and wider, as Ross is always looking for.

It was far from perfect.

The habit of slowing attacks down when reaching the final third persists and after a bright start, the tempo certainly dropped.

Later in the game they were not helped, it must be said, by quite extraordinary timewasting from the visiting side.

It is a quirk of this often baffling division that a side sat two places below the play-off places would quite so happily settle for a point way before the closing stages of the game even came onto the horizon.

From Sunderland's perspective, it was a performance that was better and yet quite clearly not enough.

Ross was justified in his bullishness after this particular draw but he will also acutely understand the reality of the bigger picture.

Barnsley and Luton have picked up twice as many points from their last six games.

The former have scored twice as many goals in that time and the latter are not far behind.

Automatic promotion is now out of Sunderland's hands.

They cannot, as Ross had hoped, put pressure on the top two by usurping Barnsley before they next play on Saturday.

The points-per-game ratio has fallen below two and will remain that way even if three points are gathered against Accrington.

Put simply, this Sunderland side is one that of late, is falling short of the standards Ross himself has set for the season.

The Black Cats boss knows, too, that the sheer size of his squad and the quality of the players missing will bring a unique pressure if results do not turn.

This was without question a step back in the right direction, a performance that Ross said 'he would put his name to every day'.

In isolation, most would agree with that.

The understandable concern nevertheless is that regardless of that improvement, momentum is not with Sunderland and time is ticking to turn that around.

At the moment, the drawing habit, whether performances are good or bad, is leaving them off the pace.