Phil Smith's verdict: The key reason Sunderland are off the top two pace and the potential solutions considered

It was another game that left Jack Ross with much to ponder.

Saturday, 16th February 2019, 15:19 pm
Updated Saturday, 16th February 2019, 15:27 pm
Chris Maguire's return to form is a timely boost for Jack Ross

The partnership between Will Grigg and Charlie Wyke, promising against Blackpool, malfunctioned badly and had to be changed.

For parts of the game the midfield was overrun.

Chris Maguire's return to form is a timely boost for Jack Ross

The output of his wide players was poor until the arrival of Chris Maguire and then suddenly Aiden McGeady thrived, producing a talismanic display not dissimilar to the one that salvaged a draw from a similar two-goal deficit at Walsall earlier this season.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Defensively, Sunderland looked uncertain.

The post-match debate, as it was after the draw with Blackpool, raged mainly around the make up of the starting XI and who Ross should opt for in future.

Which, in a nutshell, is the main reason why at this stage, Sunderland look to be outsiders behind Luton Town and Barnsley in the race for automatic promotion.

With 15 games to go the Black Cats boss is still searching for the right blend of personnel to offer a consistent attacking threat while remaining relatively robust at the back.

The top two have settled teams and familiar structures and so it is no coincidence that they are building up a real of steam as a result.

Of course, particularly in the case of Barnsley, Sunderland are by no means lagging way behind.

They still have a game against the Tykes to play this season and if they can finally get back to winning ways on Tuesday night, they will trail Daniel Stendel's side by only three points.

What does look increasingly clear nevertheless is that if the Black Cats are to finish in the top two, they are going to have at some stage put together a real sequence of wins.

To do that, Ross will have to find some element of continuity.

He will feel he is not far away.

Though the results have been poor this week, his team have significantly improved their attacking output and this was another game on chances created that they should have won.

Will Grigg missed two crucial openings with the score at 0-0.

Charlie Wyke missed from a matter of yards when his side was 1-0 behind and Grigg was then very unlucky to see two efforts from close range blocked.

Grigg, in particular, is the main reason for optimism as Sunderland look to end their frustrating run of draws.

It has been a difficult start for the 27-year-old, who should arguably have at least three Sunderland goals to his name already.

But his positioning has been excellent, his movement a constant menace and his first touch very good.

Even after key misses, he has continued to play with confidence and that gives real hope that he can shoulder the expectations that come with leading the line in a pressurised situation like this.

The issue for Ross is getting the right blend behind him.

This was an ultra-attacking line up, reflecting the manager's desire to create open games in which his team will thrive.

Control of the midfield was lost in the interim.

This feels the central problem. With three central midfielders Sunderland have left their attackers isolated; with two strikers they have struggled to build pressure.

That has been compounded by a lack of composure in possession, a mental challenge that Ross and his players need to work on.

Which is why Chris Maguire's return feels so timely.

His intelligence in reading the game is good, knowing when to stretch the game and get close to his striker, and when to drop a little bit deeper to help his team recycle possession.

On this form, he makes Ross's preferred 4-2-3-1 system look perfect for the players at his disposal.

It would be a surprise if he did not return to the starting XI against Gillingham and equally if the likes of Adam Matthews and Tom Flanagan do not return to bolster the defence.

After the recent wobble, Sunderland have shown signs of getting back to the style and purpose Ross likes to play with.

Despite two wretched spells in both draws, where the team have completely lost their shape and structure, the Black Cats have started creating chances again.

The reality, though, is that being encouraged by that has to be balanced against the stark reality of the promotion race.

Sunderland cannot afford for the gap to get much bigger because there is no reason to think Luton or Barnsley are going to suddenly drop off.

Maguire's star cameo and the performance it inspired surely pushes Ross closer to knowing the right blend and shape for his side.

It needs to come together quickly or the tension of the play-offs surely awaits.