Jack Ross gives honest assessment of Sunderland form and criticism of tactical approach

OUFC 1-1 SAFC 09-02-2019. Picture by FRANK REID
OUFC 1-1 SAFC 09-02-2019. Picture by FRANK REID
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“We’re not playing particularly well,” he said.

“That’s the frustration for me.

“You’re always judged on results as a manager, but I’ve always thought, well if you’re playing well and can see it...

“It’s really sticky for us at the moment and we’re continually searching for the solution.”

It was a theme he returned to on multiple occasions.

He was eager, as he always has been, to stress the positives of Sunderland’s position in the table, as well as the significant carrot of having the chance to move into the top two before Barnsley and Luton play next.

He stressed again the tireless work being done behind the scenes and the excellent application of his squad.

But he did not shirk the point that his side can and need to play better.

At the heart of that is the need to create more and get more support to the striker, whether that be Will Grigg or somebody else.

Ross says that has been a big focus in training, even if it yet to translate into successful results on the pitch.

“I think there’s loads of different factors [why that is],” he said.

“One, it wasn’t easy to play on Saturday. The pitch wasn’t great and also, the way they played, it’s tough.

“I sometimes don’t appreciate how tough it is because I’m not on the pitch.

“I think one or two players weren’t quite at it, not in terms of effort levels because I see the distance they cover, they’re just not playing at the levels they want to be at. That can then affect their decision making.

“That’s where the frustration comes in as a manager because we didn’t play the way we normally play on Saturday. We didn’t play 4-2-3-1, we played 4-3-3.

“We wanted Max [Power] to play a little bit higher but the game just didn’t really transpire like that,” he added.

“We ended up with too many people behind the ball again.

“The game was so frenetic that it made it more difficult to get into the areas we wanted to.

“We’ve never really just gone back to front this season. We’ve never just smashed it up and thought, that’s how we’ll get up the pitch.”

That Ross is willing to tinker with his system will be welcome news to those who feel the side have been too predictable in recent weeks.

The lack of fluidity to Sunderland’s play has been one of the key criticisms levelled at Ross with Sunderland struggling to score more than once in games.

For Ross, though, it is not as simple as changing formation.

Last week he was withering about calls for a second striker, not because he is against it on principle, but because he believes it is too often presented as a simplistic, cure-all-ill solution.

At Oxford he moved to a front two midway through the second half, which relieved some of the pressure on the Black Cats defence but did not improve their productivity in the final third.

A busy schedule will necessitate rotation of his players.

Whatever system Ross picks, improving that presence in the final third will be a key target.

“Because of the information available these days, people have become obsessed by systems,” he said.

“A key aspect is the fluidity within your system.

“That’s one area where I would be a little bit critical of us, we’re maybe a little bit static and that can make the system look much more rigid.

“It’s not down to instruction, it’s maybe just where we’re at in this wee spell.

“It’s a crude example, I remember earlier in the season when we played the lopsided back three at Luton, then we played Sheffield Wednesday in the cup.

“I know Lee Bullen there really well, and he said, ‘was that a back three or four?”
“It was hard to tell and I knew that.

“It’s a crude example but it shows how it can be hard to tell.

“The mix of personnel is what has got to be right.”

So in a crucial run of three home games in a week, there will be a desire to see not just wins but better performances, too.

A key task for Ross will be to ensure his players are not burdened by the rising pressure.

“My job and responsibility is to shield players from it [criticism],” he said.

“It’s always my responsibility, irrespective of what happens on the pitch.

“Whether we win, lose or draw, I’ll always shoulder the responsibility and shield the players from the external noise that comes with a football club of this size, because there is a lot of it.

“They’ve got to have really broad shoulders and I’ve said to them, if they can it stands them in really good stead for the rest of their life, not just in football.

“It’s a demanding club to play for whatever league it is in.

“By and large they’ve dealt with it, there’s a frustration because the dip in performances aren’t due to a lack of endeavour or willingness, it’s just not quite happening. “

We’ll keep chipping away at it until we get there.”