Though Sunderland’s defence never convinced at Oakwell in Saturday’s 3-0 Championship defeat, manager Simon Grayson was eager to point out that they could not be blamed wholly for the loss.
That much is true.
The damage may have been done by Barnsley’s direct, pacy three-man attack, but the game was lost in midfield.
When the Black Cats threatened in the opening 20 minutes, the Tykes put themselves in all sorts of danger, giving the ball away in poor areas, players getting caught driving forward out of position, dribbling into tackles.
The goal steadied them, and allowed them to play on the counter-attack that suits them so well.
Tykes boss Paul Heckingbottom’s decision to install a midfield anchor, Everton loanee Joe Williams quickly began to look inspired.
He broke up the play, added protection for his centre-backs, and showed the composure to swiftly move the ball into the areas where his team-mates could catch Sunderland unprepared and in one-on-one situations.
He was superb, but the ease with which he marshaled the play in the second half exposed a serious limitation in Sunderland’s current set-up.
Their attack is not without its threats, but it lacks the poise and vision to chase games.
Just as they had done against Leeds a week previous, Sunderland ran out of ideas, with the opposition happy to watch the game unfold far in front of their box.
James Vaughan was bought to give Sunderland a direct option, for two energetic central midfielders and a good striker, in Lewis Grabban, to feed off.
Against Norwich’s defence, inexperienced when it comes to the pace and physicality of the Championship, it worked perfectly.
Against Leeds United’s powerful defence and at Barnsley, whose two centre-backs have worked their way up from the lower leagues, it was utterly ineffective.
From there, Sunderland have no Plan B.
Lynden Gooch and Wahbi Khazri have been Grayson’s preferred substitutes, to try to offer another option in possession and to give Sunderland a creative player in the crucial area that Williams dominated.
Both have their talents, as does Aiden McGeady, who can be moved infield, but they are instinctive players who can give the ball away.
Sunderland’s inability to keep the ball and move it accurately at speed allowed Barnsley to keep that trio far from their own goal, Adam Davies barely facing a shot in the hosts’ goal.
It is fast becoming an obvious flaw.
If Grayson does not have the funds to find that variety and that control in the transfer market, his coaching abilities will be sternly tested this season.
He cannot afford for his side to be as easy to defend against as they have been in the last two league games.