Challenging and analysing one of the key criticisms of Sunderland after Michael Appleton comments

Michael Appleton is well aware of the dangers that his Lincoln City will face on Saturday afternoon.

Friday, 4th October 2019, 5:45 pm
Joel Lynch helped SUnderland superbly defend two leads last week

He has only been in the job a matter of weeks but a highly-rated coach with an excellent record in his last job at Oxford United, his preparation will be thorough.

In his pre-match remarks, he mentioned the form of Jordan Willis and Luke O’Nien as threats that his side will have to be aware of.

He also knows Chris Maguire as well as anyone, having overseen one of the most successful spells of his career while in charge at the Kassam Stadium.

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His most interesting response, however, came when he was asked for this thoughts on why Sunderland have drawn so many games since returning to League One.

It’s long been one of the main debates surrounding Jack Ross and his side.

Appleton reasoned that the side's attacking quality meant that they are more likely than most to recover a point from a losing situation.

At the other end, he offered a perspective that has been often been presented, that the Black Cats have a habit of dropping deep and sitting on a lead.

“Whether you go behind in a game or you're chasing it, with the quality that they have in their squad they've always got a goal in them,” he told Lincolnshire Live.

"I think sometimes when they do go ahead in games, which is natural because they're human beings, there's a tendency to drop a little bit deeper and to back off expecting the opposition to come at them.

"By doing that you can find yourself in a situation where the pressure builds and you end up conceding.

“I said after the United game the other night we've got to prey on that expectation that they're under.”

Unquestionably, the pressures of being one of the biggest scalps in the division has had an affect on Sunderland since dropping into League One.

The ‘cup final’ atmosphere surrounding games last season was well discussed, striking the number of times that teams landed a point against the black Cats before falling to a defeat in the following game.

The stats, though, suggest that this season at least, Sunderland cope relatively well in winning positions.

Currently they have dropped just two points from a winning position, the 1-1 draw with Rotherham where Jake Hastie scored to level the game after Marc McNulty’s first-minute goal.

In the five games they have dropped points, they have condeded the first goal in four of them.

Over the course of the season, they have conceded four goals when in a wining position. One in that Rotherham draw, one against MK Dons on Saturday, and one in the games against Rochdale and AFC Wimbledon, being pegged back to 1-1 before going on to land the three points.

It’s a record that compares well enough to the sides currently pushing for the promotion places, as shown below.

Points dropped from a winning position in the second half of league games (number in brackets denotes the tally when extended to the first half)

Ipswich – 2

Wycombe – 2

Fleetwood – 2 (5)

Coventry – 2 (4)

Sunderland – 2

Blackpool – 0 (3)

Bristol Rovers – 4

Peterborough – 4

Doncaster – 2

Goals conceded when in winning positions

Ipswich – 3

Wycombe – 4

Fleetwood – 6

Coventry – 4

Sunderland – 4

Blackpool – 5

Bristol Rovers – 3

Peterborough – 3

Doncaster – 3

They are numbers that underline the belief of Jack Ross that his side have generally improved defensively this season.

Though they are yet to keep a clean sheet, it underlines that they have defended their box significantly better than they were able to do for much of last season.

There have unquestionably been games where a narrow lead has created a tense finale to games.

But against Portsmouth, Rochdale and MK Dons, Jon McLaughlin has been forced into few significant late saves even if the opposition have applied pressure in terms of possession and territory.

Two excellent performances from Joel Lynch and Laurens De Bock have raised hopes that they will be able to convert those improvements into the shut-outs they need to climb towards the top two.

Ross offered a candid assessement of his Sunderland side when asked to reflect on their position after ten games.

He insisted that his side have a good platform, but that there is a belief that they will improve as the season develops.

Clearly, there is room for improvement at both ends of the pitch.

There has been criticism of their approach, not killing teams off or going for the jugular when ahead.

It’s a complex picture, but in the Rotherham game they dominated after taking the lead, ultimately paying the price for not taking the chances they created in that spell before half-time.

Sunderland, without a doubt, have work to do to consistently turn the draw that have been their achilles heel into wins, but the signs so far have been that a lack of conviction when ahead is not the major issue.

In terms of both personnel and performance, they have handled being ahead in games better than for much of last season.

The statistics suggest that a bigger issue has been giving opponents a lead to sit on, allowing them to frustrate the Black Cats.

It’s there that the pressure Appleton mentioned can be a hurdle to overcome, something he referenced when urging his side to overcome their recent problems and take a rare lead in games.