Inside the week Sunderland's Kyril Louis-Dreyfus era suffered its first real setback and what we learned from it

After the anguish came a relative calm.

Tuesday, 20th April 2021, 12:00 pm

There was a long chat with Ben Mansford, who had been Lee Johnson's CEO at Barnsley. The pair have retained a good rapport, and Elliot Embleton's presence at Bloomfield Road has been another reason for regular dialogue.

Then came the new boss.

With Kyril Louis-Dreyfus there were a couple of fist bumps and a couple of minutes of measured chat about the game.

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Sunderland have lost three consecutive league games for the first time since dropping into League One

By the time Johnson spoke to the media, there was bitter disappointment but a determination not to overreact.

A sentiment the head coach said was shared by the club chairman.

"Kryil had very much the same view on the game, very much the same," Johnson said.

"Anybody that was here, their guys said exactly the same, so we're not deluding ourselves.

"He's been as good as gold and I'm enjoying building a really good relationship with him."

These post-match debriefs have been very much par for the course since Louis-Dreyfus' arrival. He has been a hands-on presence at the club, from the serious business of forward planning to the not quite so serious business of head tennis at the Academy of Light.

Still, the clear poise felt notable given that this was the week in which Sunderland suffered their first real setbacks since his arrival.

Just seven days earlier, he had not witnessed a single defeat as majority shareholder but now, hopes of the top-two were just about up in smoke.

In his first in-house interview, Louis-Dreyfus was clear about two things.

One, that Sunderland had absolutely not given up on hopes of winning promotion this season. Given that this was mid-February and the Black Cats were still well off the pace, it was an optimistic, even defiant message.

Two, that if that did happen then there would be no panic. He has a vision he believes in and a short-term setback will not derail that.

For all on Wearside, these seven days were galling.

Not just for the results themselves, but the manner in which Sunderland have fallen short at the crucial moment of the season.

Even if this performance (and the one against Charlton) had been decent for the most part, you can forgive the bitter frustration that has been felt.

Johnson has spoken of concentration fatigue perhaps affecting his group. Understandably, there is little chance he and those relatively new to the club can appreciate the extreme emotional fatigue fans are experiencing at watching another top-two tilt fall away. Particularly given that on this occasion, many had not so long ago made their peace with disappointment.

Just when we thought we were out, they pulled us back in.

When Louis-Dreyfus made his first public appearance against Shrewsbury Town, there was a growing sense of apathy. Few supporters then would have given you an optimistic reading of Sunderland's promotion chances and the pervading sense was that there was going to have to be more pain before a journey back towards the Championship could begin.A long unbeaten run, with a Wembley win thrown in for good measure, upended that thinking.

Sunderland managed to get themselves back into the driving seat and as such, their recent results have to be viewed in this context.

They were unfortunate last season to see their season curtailed but equally, their woe was self-inflicted given a four-game winless run before COVID-19 forced a break.

Similar to this season, Sunderland had hauled themselves back from the brink only to falter right when it mattered most.

Their position the previous season had been even stronger.

Given that the squad of players has been broadly similar throughout, then it is not unreasonable to wonder where the collective mentality has been strong enough. Particularly when the theme of this week was soft goals shipped, and a clear lack of composure in the final third under pressure.

Perhaps that relative sense of calm from the Sunderland hierarchy also stems, in its own way, from shortcomings laid bare.

Louis-Dreyfus understood when he arrived at the club the sheer magnitude of the job that awaited him, and indeed the most explosive elements of that first interview were a reflection of his discovery of just how much work the Madrox regime had left him to do in rebuilding the club.

A front-row seat for his family's tenure at Marseille also left him under no illusions about the challenges of football ownership.

In short, a surge in results did not mean he would be getting carried away.

For Johnson, too, you suspect that these results were not a reality check as such.

Wigan was a dismal display, but the other two performances did not greatly differ from the levels where Sunderland found themselves for much of their unbeaten run.

The difference was that in both boxes, they were nowhere near as ruthless and at a key moment, a number of players have come off the boil.

Johnson regularly says that football is a numbers game and pays close attention to the data behind performances.

He knew that while impressively resilient, Sunderland's attacking output by and large was modest and you could sense a tinge of concern even when the wins were frequent.

Take, for example, a narrow win over Bristol Rovers when his first comment afterwards was that he was 'frustrated as he was delighted'.

The margins have been relatively fine throughout and so perhaps it is no great surprise that there has now been some variance in results.

None of this is to absolve Johnson, who has regularly said he believes in this squad of players and that they are better than often given credit for. He came to win promotion this season and in the last week, the depth of the group has not been able to turn results.

Though measured in his post-match remarks, he was candid in admitting that his team have all but 'thrown away' a golden opportunity. He had no issue, either, when it was put to him that as an attacking unit they have simply not done enough in adversity of late.

To deliver a run of three defeats in the league for the first time since Sunderland dropped into the third tier is a record that will rightly sting.

For two reasons, though, there is clearly no major [public] inquest yet.

First and foremost, promotion remains a real possibility and so Johnson's challenge is to find a foothold once more and admit another injury crisis, come with a solution to stop the rot and rebuild some momentum.

The play-offs have looked like Sunderland's most likely avenue for promotion for much of this campaign and their position now compared to that bleak midwinter looks stronger.

Even in defeat, they have rarely been outplayed and that should give some confidence in any end-of-season shootout.

It also feels as if this slump has reaffirmed that regardless of what happens in the current weeks, a significant summer overhaul is required.

This squad has quality and depth for the level, but a modest January window in which the takeover had not yet been completed has clearly not shifted the needle far enough.

No matter what division Sunderland find themselves in next year, there is work to be done if the vision for high-pressing, dynamic attacking football is to be achieved on a consistent basis.

Injuries have forced reshuffle after reshuffle and that has not helped Johnson implement that style, but on the whole it still looks and plays like a side built for Phil Parkinson's 3-4-3 shape and approach.

The head coach will expect to produce a much better return between now and the end of the season than the two goals and three defeats he has overseen in the last week, but the overwhelming sense across the club remains that on a ​long, winding road on which the first steps have only just been taken.

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