Chris Maguire highlights an underrated skill and Oxford boss makes revealing remark: The Sunderland matchday notebook
Sunderland took another major step towards the top two on Saturday with a crucial win away at Oxford United.
Here, we look at some of the game’s other talking points worth reflecting on now the dust has settled….
KARL ROBINSON’S TELLING REMARK
Karl Robinson raised eyebrows on Wearside in claiming his side had dominated the game.
They were comments best put into the context of where Oxford find themselves, on a disappointing run as their cup exertions catch up with them.
They’re also still recovering from the deadline day disappointment of losing key players Tariqe Fosu and Shandon Baptiste to Brentford.
Robsinson’s desire to be bullish therefore makes sense and he was right in saying his side had asked more questions of Sunderland’s shape than a lot of sides recently, and anyone in the Black Cats camp would say the same.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of Robinson’s post-match conference was his praise for Jon McLaughlin.
Robinson highlighted not only his key saves, but his general command of the box throughout the contest.
In stormy conditions, McLaughlin put in a superb display that underlined his return to form.
It’s a major positive for the Black Cats, but it won’t have gone unnoticed amongst the clubs looking for a potential addition to their goalkeeping ranks in the summer.
McLaughlin’s situation does not appear to be any closer to being resolved.
ANOTHER SET-PIECE STRIKE
When Grant Leadbitter returned to the club last January, he almost immediately transformed Sunderland’s set-piece threat.
It had been a major source of frustration for supporters in the initial months of the season and Leadbitter immediately brought a consistency of delivery.
It was a boost for the backroom staff, too, who had been equally frustrated by the club’s output up to that point.
Oxford away was one of the games where it paid off. Leadbitter put in a brilliant corner and Jimmy Dunne did the rest, a goal against the run of play that helped secure a point Sunderland probably did not deserve on a day they were outplayed.
Chris Maguire’s revival has been much discussed but the major improvement in his set piece delivery is one aspect that has not had a great deal of attention.
In recent weeks Phil Parkinson’s side have been a regular threat from dead-ball situations and his delivery for Jordan Willis on Saturday was terrific.
He almost forced a second later on, with a great ball from deep nodded just wide by Charlie Wyke.
It’s another aspect that underlines the focus with which Maguire is approaching the game as he bids to prove he’s worthy of a new deal, in this division or the one above.
THE KEY CHAMPIONSHIP EXPERIENCE
Though Sunderland had been poor in that aforementioned draw with Oxford last season, it was a game that they were winning with ten minutes to play and the soft goal that they conceded was symptomatic of the errors that ultimately cost them at the end of the season.
So too see it out this time around, and with real conviction, felt significant.
The Black Cats were helped considerably by smart cameos from Kyle Lafferty and in particular, Josh Scowen.
Scowen has had to be patient in waiting for an opportunity but showed his maturity in a calm display.
He made good decisions and helped shore up the midfield after a slight change in system from Parkinson.
Going into the window, assistant Steve Parkin had spoken about how the backroom staff felt a young squad could be helped by adding some Championship experience, players who would be comfortable coping with the pressure of a promotion race at such a big club.
This was the kind of mature display he was referring to and it’s why, despite Alim Ozturk’s consistency, they will be hoping for better than expected news on Bailey Wright’s ankle knock.
Sunderland do not yet know the full extent of the damage but Parkinson’s concern in his post-match comments was clear.
The Black Cats boss is thrilled with the consistency of his defenders but will not want to be left short of options, and hopes that Joel Lynch will return to training this week as he recovers from a rib problem.
TWO PLAYERS DESTINED FOR THE TOP
The goal from Jordan Willis was just one element of an outstanding display from the Sunderland centre-back.
Willis looks a player destined for greater things and at the moment, there is rightly a lot of optimism that he will be able to achieve them with Sunderland.
It was another game when he showed his excellent athleticism but also his intelligence and ability to read the game, getting in great positions to deal with dangerous crosses and counter-attacks.
It was a game in which the central defenders stood out, with Oxford United’s Rob Dickie putting in an eye-catching display.
Many teams have struggled to pick up Sunderland’s attacking midfielders in recent weeks but the 23-year-old marshaled Lynden Gooch superbly.
Parkinson wanted extra legs and strength in central midfield when he replaced Gooch with Scowen, but it also reflected the dominance Dickie had in that area of the pitch.
Not only did he defend well throughout, he also brought the ball out and contributed to the build up with a poise you don’t often see in central defenders at this level.
Two defenders heading for the top.