Getting Will Grigg firing, fans back onside and solving defensive woes: The six big challenges facing under-pressure Sunderland boss Jack Ross
Pressure is mounting at Sunderland.
Back-to-back 1-1 draws in League One this week has seen frustration spill over into anger on the terraces.
Jack Ross felt the brunt of it at the University of Bolton stadium on Saturday afternoon as Sunderland struggled against the division’s basement side, without a win all season.
Here’s what we learned from the Bolton draw and the six big challenges facing under-fire Ross ahead of a pivotal week.
Patience is thin.
Earlier this season Sunderland won five games on the spin but one defeat at Peterborough United led to a fortnight of scrutiny, pressure and focus on Jack Ross during the international break.
That’s the way this campaign will be, with pressure to win promotion back to the Championship intense. There is no hiding place. Promotion is a must.
Sunderland bounced back with a 3-1 win at Accrington Stanley, not the best the team has played but most would settle for a comfortable away win most weeks.
Again, there was criticism and pressure because Sunderland didn’t score more goals and had conceded again, the overall performance not deemed up to standards.
That has then been compounded by back-to-back 1-1 draws at home to Rotherham United, following Aiden McGeady’s penalty miss and the bang average display at Bolton.
A 1-1 draw will feature heavily when Ross’ Sunderland tenure is remembered in years to come.
Can Ross win back the support?
With 66 minutes on the clock and Sunderland 1-0 down, the patience of some Sunderland supporters snapped.
Chris Maguire, who hadn’t been spectacular by any means, withdrawn, Charlie Wyke on.
From the away end chants of ‘You don’t know what you’re doing’ could be clearly heard, chants aimed at Ross.
The Bolton fans, sensing an opportunity, joined in with chants of ‘You’re getting sacked in the morning’ to which a number of the Sunderland support also joined in.
It was relatively brief. But it happened. And when the away support turns on you, the fans who see the team week in, week out, then you’re in trouble.
Stewart Donald was in the away end so he would have heard the message loud and clear. It was even louder on social media.
Ross is under-fire and pressure is mounting. A takeover of the club is yet to be complete but is thought to be imminent. The stakes are high.
Sunderland face Sheffield United on Wednesday in the Carabao Cup before a huge home game against MK Dons next Saturday. This week could prove pivotal for Ross.
Most fans won't be overly concerned with the League Cup but victory next Saturday is a must and Sunderland must show a huge improvement on recent performances.
Ross knows how important this week is, post-match at Bolton he said: “In my opinion we're in a unique situation at this club in this league but we've got to deal with it.
“There's got to be a collective want to deal with it together. We've had a good chat and I believe there is.
“But like everything, the easy part is saying it, the toughest part is doing it.
“This week we've got a good cup tie to deal with, then a home game, to go and win that negate the fact we've had two draws this week.”
Full-back problems coming back to bite
Denver Hume again struggled. Exciting winger Thibaud Verlinden had the better of him all half. The academy graduate hauled off at the break, the second time this season.
There is a lot of pressure on Laurens De Bock to impress when he finally gets up to speed. Conor McLaughlin replaced Hume but truth be told he wasn’t much better. Jury firmly out on him.
It all meant Luke O’Nien, who started the Rotherham game up front, was then shifted back to right-back at Bolton before ending the game playing left-back.
Sunderland look to have got their summer recruitment in the full-back areas badly wrong. They are lacking and it is a major issue.
Sunderland must solve clean sheet woes
It was a woeful goal to concede. Conor McLaughlin giving away the free-kick.
The set piece delivered to the back post, Will Buckley headed it back across and Jack Hobbs, pretty much by himself, hooked it home. Too easy. Far too easy. Bolton couldn’t believe their luck.
Sunderland are yet to keep a clean sheet and they don’t look like doing so. Ross was targeting 20 this season yet we are already nine games in and the first is yet to arrive.
How to get Will Grigg firing?
Phil Smith’s player ratings summed it up: ‘Missed a big opening in the first half and struggled to hold the ball up and bring team-mates into play. Improved after Bolton’s goal but struggled to make a significant impression.’
That big opening saw Grigg send a free header wide of the post. Not the first time he has done that this season. With Marc McNulty missing with a hamstring injury, Grigg got the nod.
Again he failed to perform.
Sunderland are too heavily reliant on Aiden McGeady and it’s no exaggeration to say Ross’ future at the club could hinge on how quickly Grigg rediscovers his goalscoring touch.
Problems at both ends of the pitch and too many players not performing.
Can’t keep a clean sheet and Sunderland’s forward players have been wasteful in their last two games, all heaping the pressure on.
Granted he is a defender but Tom Flanagan had three good openings from headers, two sent wide, one hit the crossbar. McGeady saw an effort brilliantly saved.
Sunderland had the chances but they didn’t take them, a recipe for disaster when you can’t keep a clean sheet at the other end.
Coupled with too many players enduring a bad day at the office. A big week lies in store.