Phil Smith's verdict: The key positives and the main concern from Sunderland's 'pivotal' week

Full time at Oxford United and while Jack Ross is defending his team, his concern is obvious.

Wednesday, 20th February 2019, 10:05 am
Updated Wednesday, 20th February 2019, 10:12 am
Lee Cattermole's successful return on Tuesday night was a big positive for Sunderland

They have struggled in the game and a worrying pattern is developing.

Not enough shots, not enough chances, not enough wins.

Lee Cattermole's successful return on Tuesday night was a big positive for Sunderland

Ross did not want to hide away or deflect from those facts but he also pointed to a real opportunity in a matter of days.

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Three home games in seven days.

Win those was the challenge and if Sunderland could do that, they would be in a good position.

Fail to do so and some criticism would be on the way. The implication was that it would be warranted.

Yet even after picking up just one win, the mood feels considerably more positive than it did at the start of this 'pivotal' week.

That is unquestionably the case in terms of the manager and the group itself.

That frustration at Oxford stemmed primarily because the side had stopped being able to translate their training ground work onto the pitch.

Their attacking talent was on the periphery of games.

The gameplan this season has always been to encourage other sides into the game, in the belief that Sunderland's excellence in the final third would win the day.

It was the hallmark of impressive wins this season, such as the one against Barnsley and the return fixture against Gillingham.

The surge in positivity stems from the fact that in each of the last three games, Sunderland have been able to get back to that style.

It's one that they believe will win them more games than not.

Against Blackpool Duncan Watmore added a different dimension, in the second half against Accrington Stanley it was Chris Maguire.

Throughout the week, Will Grigg has offered a different string to the Black Cats' bow, running the channels superbly and showcasing an impressive first touch.

After searching for a formula, Ross looks again close to a structure and a blend of partnerships that he can rely on consistently. That is absolutely vital if the Black Cats are to go on the kind of winning run that will be necessary to catch Barnsley or Luton.

Most encouraging of all was the way Grant Leadbitter and Lee Cattermole won the midfield battle, winning countless 50/50's but also controlling the tempo in possession.

One of the biggest concerns in this week was the two spells against Blackpool and Accrington Stanley where, stung by conceding, Sunderland completely lost their shape and composure.

That never happened on Tuesday, Sunderland on top even in the spells where they weren't particularly productive.

Of course it is not all positive.

Tough tests await and five points from nine is far from the ideal return.

Sunderland can justifiably say that generally, they would expect Grigg and others to take their chances and win these types of games.

But their defensive play is a concern and while the best blend in attack and midfield is starting to emerge, in defence there remain many unanswered questions.

Any Ross side will concede goals, it is just the nature of the style.

The concern is the nature of those goals gifted away and the lack of consistent performances.

Ross did point out that he felt there was some element of misfortune in Gillingham's first on Tuesday night.

The initiative remains very much with the current top two in the race for automatic promotion.

This week will have done little to change that but it's probably worth remembering that it was not so long ago that Portsmouth looked invincible.

They haven't won in six.

Barnsley and Luton do look to have stronger squads and more firepower to sustain their good form but nothing is certain in this league.

A hugely positive atmosphere at the Stadium of Light on Tuesday night nevertheless reflected the fact that Sunderland are back moving in the right direction.

Their hopes of automatic promotion remain very much alive.

If they keep up this level of performance, they will surely win enough to be right in the mix come the final days of the campaign.