Phil Smith's verdict: Assessing the criticism of Jack Ross and the state of play at Sunderland

In his post-match comments, Jack Ross said his players had been too ‘passive’ in the first half.

Sunday, 22nd September 2019, 12:59 pm

Certainly, it was not until they conceded an utterly woeful set piece goal that they began to play with any kind of bite.

They had the better chances in the first half but that belied an insipid performance. Sunderland didn’t hold the ball up, were too slow to second balls and for the most part were overpowered in the wide areas.

Bolton Wanderers, it must be said, have signed well.

Jack Ross came under fire during and after the 1-1 draw with Bolton Wanderers

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Liam Bridcutt may not have made much of an impression on Wearside but he is a superb addition at this level and here he stood out, tenacious and composed in a midfield area that too often lacked any sort of control.

Thibaud Verlinden, too, is a player who on this form would grace any side in this division.

They nevertheless remain a side firmly in transition and after a punishing week, this should have been one game too far. That was evident in the closing stages when the Black Cats finally began to turn the screw, forcing a pair of fine saves from Remi Matthews before eventually forcing the error that led to their equaliser.

The second 1-1 draw of the week, but one very different in profile.

Against Rotherham Sunderland had began with purpose and drive, but weren’t ruthless enough and ultimately paid the price.

A fifteenth league draw of 2019.

All of which serves to explain the frustration in the away end that saw, for the first time, audible anger with the Black Cats manager Jack Ross.

Sunderland, after nine games, sit in fifth position with sixteen points.

They are generally resilient, tough to beat and score in the vast majority of games.

There is nothing to suggest that they will drop out of the upper reaches of the table, as was the case for the entirety of the last campaign.

Where the fault line lies is that for many, the performances so far do not offer confidence that they can take the next step and become a dominant League One side.

There are spells in games when it looks that way.

Ross has faced criticism for his playing style but at their best, this is a Sunderland side that are direct but purposeful.

It does not always look that way, and not capitalising on those spells of pressure and killing games off has long been something that Ross has bemoaned.

It is an issue, without doubt, and there remain question marks over a strikeforce that is struggling for consistency.

Without Marc McNulty, it is also clear that they lack a player capable of stretching the play successfully.

It’s telling, though, that they have scored only two goals less than an Ipswich side who are currently dominant at the top of the division. Their tally is significantly bolstered by their 5-0 over Bolton when they were a pale imitation of the side Sunderland faced yesterday.

They have conceded seven less, and kept six more clean sheets.

A lack of ruthlessness at the back is a major issue that Ross simply has to correct. That was never summed up better than the abject defending that allowed Bolton to take a shock lead on Saturday.

So this is where Sunderland stand, in a position where it can still become a successful season, but where there are deficiencies that raise concerns amongst supporters that the shortcomings that led to last season’s narrow miss will not be avoided.

The tension and frustration is palpable.

Ross, for his part, said that Sunderland’s situation is ‘unique’. Essentially, they are being judged by a perception from outsiders that every game should bring a thumping victory.

It’s generally predicated with a mention of budget and reputation.

Keith Hill a classic example post-match, saying: “you only have to look at the bench to see what type of money they have spent in the summer.”

A curious statement, given that Sunderland paid only one fee, bringing in George Dobson for a sum a fraction of many of the deals done by other clubs. Most of the players they recruited this summer, and indeed for the entirety of the Ross era, have predominantly League One experience.

There have been successes and some missteps.

Debate over his best position may continue but Luke O’Nien is a player who had never played above League Two, yet had Championship suitors in the summer, has been a perfect fit for the club and would draw a handsome profit should he depart somewhere down the line.

It remains early in the campaign, but Jordan Willis and George Dobson look similarly smart additions.

All three have brought the average age of the side down, bring enthusiasm, athleticism and scope for improvement.

The pathway from the academy has been good, too.

The point here, on the eve of a potential takeover, is that there has been plenty to applaud since the arrival of Ross and the new ownership.

There is much to improve, too.

On the whole, recruitment has probably not brought enough of that speed and energy into the side.

After the ‘ground zero’ effect of relegation, it is an obvious area to address in the new era.

On the pitch, Ross will know that he faces a battle now to win over supporters who have lost confidence in his ability to deliver the ruthless displays that can forge long winning runs and automatic promotion form.

It has been said often enough before, and Stewart Donald has rightly drawn reference publicly to the professionalism, application and meticulous organisation that he has brought to the club.

It is fair, too, from him to bristle at the simplistic budget references that barely even scratch the surface over a rollercoaster 16 months or so since he was appointed.

He will be acutely aware that for all the pride in his off-field work (and indeed a lot of his on-field work), wins are needed to restore faith in the bigger picture.It’s a curious circumstance, for a side sitting relatively comfortably in the table and with every chance still of achieving their goals for the season.

That, though, is where Sunderland’s situation is unique and whereas last season there was patience that gradual improvement would follow, this time around there is an understandable desire to see clear evidence that a third season in League One is unlikely.

It is surely not the time to rip it up and start again.

Across the board, there are things to build on and things to address.

The manager and the playing squad are one part of that.

Those fan chants were an understandable reaction to another unconvincing showing.

Addressing that concern is biggest challenge for Jack Ross now, one part of a club that has travelled a long way in 18 months but still has so, so far to go.