Phil Smith's verdict: The factors behind Sunderland's underwhelming win and a big challenge for Jack Ross

It was almost two hours before kick off and a queue was beginning to snake around the club shop.

Sunday, 3rd February 2019, 11:06 am
Updated Thursday, 7th February 2019, 16:10 pm
Jack Ross has little time do settle on a best side after his January business

Will Grigg was there to greet fans and sign autographs.

Not long before, a car whizzed round the outskirts of the stadium, windows wound down, ‘Will Grigg’s on Fire’ blasting.

Jack Ross has little time do settle on a best side after his January business

There is nothing like a record signing to lift the mood.

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Sunderland’s outlay on Grigg is more than any third tier club has ever spent on a player.

His arrival offered a lift after the concerning departure of Josh Maja.

When the likes of Grant Leadbitter and Lewis Morgan were added to the mix, the feeling was that the Black Cats would now be ready to kick on for the final months of the season.

Their form had dipped alarmingly in the month of January, even if they had faced some difficult opponents.

The play was less fluid than earlier in the season, the chances hard to come by.

The arrival of AFC Wimbledon, rooted to the bottom of the league, seemed a good time to start climbing back through the gears.

Sunderland got the job done, but it didn’t quite happen like that and it was an afternoon that would have done little to appease those who feel this is not a team ready to power through to automatic promotion.

The home side had over 60% of possession but could only convert that into two shots on target.

The Jack Ross philosophy has always been to make the pitch as long and as wide as possible.

In the first half especially, that was something they struggled to do .

Countless times the ball came out wide to Aiden McGeady or Lewis Morgan, but with little movement in the box, the move either slowed down or broke down altogether.

Wyke in particular has struggled badly when he has not the quick feet of Maja nearby.

At the moment, his movement is poor and he is not creating space for midfielders to run into dangerous areas.

Sunderland needed a defensive error to get ahead and it was only then that they began to play with a real rhythm.

The pace of Kazaiah Sterling off the shoulder and the ball-carrying persistence of Luke O’Nien, both second half substitutes, significantly improved the balance of the side.

The post-match debate has therefore understandably centred around the questions of formations and partnerships.

Does Ross need to change things, to increase the pace and purpose of Sunderland’s play?

Perhaps.

It has certainly become to easy to defend against them at the Stadium of Light. Teams are now sitting deep, waiting for an error in possession, picking their moments to press in numbers and looking to exploit attacking set pieces.

Some extra mobility in the final third, particularly in central areas, would unquestionably help.

Currently, their width and skill in the wide areas is not producing as many chances as it should.

The reality, though, is that this is the biggest challenge Jack Ross faces in the closing months of the season.

He may have the ‘biggest budget’, but he has a squad still learning about each other. All over the pitch there were new partnerships.

Only Reece James and Aiden McGeady have had a sustained run of games together. The rest still looking to establish understanding, patterns of play and fluidity.

To the likes of Luton Town, that is natural and ingrained through playing together week in, week out.

The challenge of the League One schedule is that there is precious little time on the training ground to establish that.

For Sunderland to be where they are, still with the best points-per-game ratio in the league behind Luton, is an exceptional achievement from Ross and his staff.

Their ability to keep churning out results is impressive and deserves real credit.

Ross will unquestionably want more dynamism and threat from his side.

He will be assessing the best partnerships and structures to produce that.

He will also, quite simply, need time.

Sunderland don't really have that and so to stay right in the hunt in the meantime is impressive.

Even if this was a little underwhelming, there should be much cause for optimism.

If nothing else, Will Grigg must surely have been watching on with relish.

He is the most prolific League One striker of recent years, and will be itching to start causing problems in the box.

In McGeady and Morgan, the service will be as good as it gets.

It is going to make a big difference to this side.