Phil Smith's tour diary: Inside Sunderland's new system and what we finally learned about Mika

On the morning of the game, Jack Ross worked for the best part of 90 minutes with the XI that took on Belenenses.

By Phil Smith
Sunday, 21 July, 2019, 16:45
Jack Ross has been working on a new system in pre-season

The drills were focused on Sunderland’s new shape, building attacks from the back and creating opportunities to switch to players isolated in wide areas, wher the potential to do damage is maximum.

Equally important was the link-up play and positioning of the front three, to ensure that Will Grigg was not left isolated.

In the game itself there were moments in the first half where it almost worked perfectly.

Watching the session, one of Sunderland’s most memorable and brilliant goals from last season sprung to mind.

That George Honeyman winner was a moment of utter delirium and the celebrations wonderful to watch, but what really stood out about was that at a crucial moment, with just moments left on the clock, the Black Cats had been so patient, so precise and so clinical.

The good build-up play, the perfect switch from McGeouch, the patience from O’Nien at the byline and the composure of Honeyman.

Afterwards, Rochdale boss Brian Barry-Murphy spoke with effusive praise about their approach.

“The result didn't go our way but we were playing against a side who have been relentless in their pursuit of points all season,” he said.

"I kind of admire the way they went about the game really.

"We scored and had good spells in the first half and they were never affected, they just kept doing what they wanted to do.”

That was Jack Ross’ Sunderland at their best.

Controlling the tempo, creating that space and hitting the switches at the right time.

Watching them in action this week, on the training pitch and in the games, the logic and motivation for the new shape Ross has been employing seems clear.

Ross has reflected deeply on the season that was and what needs to improve.

Pace and strength were key areas and tuning the parts of the game Sunderland do well was equally important.

They have good techincal midfielders, wing-backs with irrepressible energy levels and unpredictable inside forwards.

There were no goals in Portugal, but it was encouraging to see a distinct pattern of play beginning to emerge and some fresh legs at the heart of it.

Jordan Willis, Duncan Watmore and Elliot Embleton all looked the part and then some.

Which isn’t to say that Ross has solved his problems or settled upon a faultless system.

But one of the things he has spoken regularly about is developing a stronger identity in his squad that means they can switch systems while remaining true to their style of play.

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The profile of his squad is also changing, getting younger, more athletic and more tight-knit in terms of age, experience and profile.

Sunderland leave Portugal with concerns and things to work on, of that there is no doubt.

For one, all their patient play has not yielded a goal in two games. Watmore was excellent against Belenenses, but his finishing remains inconsistent and there was a missed chance against Benfica B, too.

Will Grigg remains short of confidence in front of goal and in defence there were some shaky moments.

Ross’ desire to push his wing-backs high is admirable but on this occasion, it left them vulnerable to the counter and the pace that these Belenenses forwards possess.

Then there is the question of taking these principles and applying them to the tempo of a League One game.

On the plus side, it’s hard to imagine many sides in the division being able to play out through Sunderland’s high press with the composure and precision that these two teams have.

the other hand, whether the Black Cats can find the time on the ball to build their play is questionable.

At home, it won’t be a problem for the most part, but flexibility will be essential on the road.

Clearly, that lack of ruthlessness in front of goal is the major concern as they head into the final stretch of the pre-season campaign.

Ross, though, is in good spirits about where his side are at.

His signings have slotted in seamlessly and bring improvements. Young players are knocking on the door and in the games so far he has seen signs of his squad taking on his messages and applying them.

It is going to be fascinating to see how his plan unfurls, whether it be with three at the back or four.

*So, three years later, we finally got to see Mika play.

The former Black Cats stopper started for OS Belenenses and was nearly beaten within minutes when Duncan Watmore was sprung free by Elliot Embleton.

From there on in, however, he looked every part a competent Primeira Liga goalkeeper.

He turned deflected efforts wide, claimed crosses and set pieces confidently, and unfurled a Pickford-esque kick out of hand which almost sent his winger flying through on goal.

Unfortunately, first team minutes might be hard to come by.

His half-time replacement, Herve Koffi, absolutely dominated his box and made a wonderful save from Embleton low to his right. Just 22, he looked a serious prospect.

Farwell then, Mika, we hardly knew you.