Chris Maguire's timely return but a major area of concern: The key lessons Sunderland must take into the play-offs
Sunderland’s win at Plymouth Argyle was a crucial one.
Not only did it secure the Black Cats’ spot in the play-offs and end the dire seven-game winless run, but it also gave some fresh hope that Lee Johnson’s side can indeed compete in the end of season competition – and could have some momentum at their backs as they head into a decisive few weeks.
Indeed, the game was littered with plenty of positives as the side prepare to push for a return to the Championship.
Here, we take a look at some of the key areas that will have pleased Lee Johnson – and some that may have proved a concern...
Lynden Gooch steals the show
Gooch was impressive throughout at Plymouth, and excelled in the central role just behind lone striker Ross Stewart.
Sunderland’s forward line were fluid at Home Park, with both Jordan Jones and Jack Diamond drifting in-field at times, but it was the American who typically occupied most of the central space.
And from there he yielded a key impact.
His work for the first goal, but in terms of retaining possession before then releasing Ross Stewart, was superb and he finished the game strongly too – showing great tenacity to burst into the box before winning the penalty that all-but settled the game.
The only frustration with the academy graduate this term has been that his performances have hit peaks and troughs.
But this performance suggests that Gooch could have a key part to play in the play-offs, particularly if afforded the opportunity to play in that role behind the striker.
He wasn’t the only player to flourish in a preferred position, either...
Max Power’s influence is clear to see
One of the key positives of Conor McLaughlin’s return (aside from another natural defensive option becoming available) was that it freed-up Max Power to return to his natural midfield berth.
While that was only able to happen for 45 minutes, Power certainly had an influence in the engine room.
He was urging his teammates higher up the field, leading the press and was instrumental in keeping Plymouth penned back during spells.
While the Sunderland skipper has performed admirably at full-back, these qualities could be key in the play-offs – so it would be no surprise if he continues in the midfield moving forward (injuries permitting, of course).
A key area that is trying to be fixed...
Sunderland’s attacking set pieces have long been a source of frustration.
From deliveries failing to clear the first man to floated crosses being all-too easily cleared, the Wearsiders aren't threatening enough from dead ball situations.
But credit where it is due, there are attempts being made to fix this area of concern – with some more inventive corner and free-kick routines being trialled in recent weeks.
At Plymouth, Power came within inches of scoring after a cleverly-taken Jones delivery and the Rangers loanee himself almost picked out Stewart after a varied free-kick routine.
Tangible results are still to come, but at least Sunderland are beginning to look like more of a threat from these situations.
Two games, five goals
Supporters could have been forgiven for experiencing a slight moment of panic when Aiden McGeady’s name was absent from the teamsheet.
Since his return in December, the winger has generally been at the heart of all Sunderland’s better moments in an attacking sense and there were fears his absence at Home Park would be felt.
But as was the case at Hull City earlier this month, Sunderland’s attacking threat didn’t look too diminished by McGeady’s omission.
That’s not to say that McGeady wouldn’t have improved the side. His quality would have undoubtedly added even more to Sunderland’s front four.
But the fact that the Black Cats have now scored five goals in the two games they have been without McGeady should give them confidence that they can cope in the event that the former Celtic man is absent for an extended spell.
Chris Maguire’s return to the scoresheet couldn’t have come at a better time
If you were seeking the ideal player to have in your squad for the play-offs, Chris Maguire wouldn’t be a bad shout.
The Scot has an uncanny knack of delivering vital goals at key moments – as he did at Plymouth on Saturday.
It was the same story in the play-offs two years ago, where Maguire’s sweetly-struck strike against Portsmouth ultimately sent the Black Cats to Wembley.
His return to the scoresheet will no doubt serve as a reminder of the key impact he can have, and that impact could prove key as Sunderland head into the play-offs.
The one area of concern for Sunderland
For all Sunderland did eventually put Plymouth to the sword, it’s fair to question whether that would have been the case were the hosts not reduced to ten men.
Indeed, fans may well have been fearing it would be a case of the same old story when Joe Edwards nodded home a second half leveller after the Black Cats had squandered several opportunities?
For how often this season have we seen Sunderland fail to make concerted spells of pressure pay-off, before then being hit with a sucker punch at the other end?
Those periods of dominance need to be made to count in the play-offs. Fine margins tend to come to the fore in the end of season shootout – so Sunderland can ill-afford to let teams off the hook when they have them on the ropes.