Phil Smith's verdict: Assessing Sunderland's opening day issues and the key areas for improvement

20 minutes in, the referee stopped the game.

Sunday, 4th August 2019, 12:22 pm
Updated Sunday, 4th August 2019, 12:23 pm

Sunderland wanted to take a throw in but their momentum was stalled.

A lengthy discussion with Oxford United captain John Mousinho followed, timewasting the subject of debate.

There was a mood of understandable frustration in the Stadium of Light. A soft goal given away early on, playing right into the hands of the opposition. The chance, now, to sit deep, pick their moments to press and counter. Take time out of the game wherever possible.

Sunderland's opening day draw left Jack Ross with much to ponder

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The familiarity felt almost crushing and after the game it was conceding early on that had Ross said frustrated him the most.

He has made keeping at least seven more clean sheets a priority this season and much of his transfer business was done with that in mind. Such a cheap goal will rankle, the Black Cats very much the architects of their own downfall.

They rescued a point, in the end, with Lynden Gooch scoring a typically emphatic penalty.

The winner, though, proved elusive and so the sense of deflation was overwhelming.

Not just because of this game or this result, but because of that sense of familiarity, a script so well known from last season.

There were, of course, subtle differences throughout and it’s worth dwelling on them a little longer to try and establish whether they can be put down to opening-day nerves or something more endemic.

Sunderland, without doubt, did not test Simon Eastwood enough in the Oxford goal.

They played most of the game in the opposition half and saw plenty of possession. Eastwood had to do superbly early on to push an effort from Marc McNulty wide, the Reading loanee showing plenty of promise in the opening exchanges.

Throughout, though, they failed to make the most of their openings and that is something that will give Ross both encouragement and cause for concern.

Their play to the edge of the box and the byline was generally quite good.

George Dobson moved it quickly and looked bright for the most part, while Dylan McGeouch provided a performance of real promise. In what was too often a hurried and panicked team performance in the first half, he showed composure and poise and on countless occasions helped get his side into a position to threaten.Ross spoke in pre-season of wanting to ensure his side got plenty of bodies in the box and here they did to that.

The final ball, though, was desperately poor.

Countless crosses were overhit straight into the stands, or fired right into the first defender when the low drive was attempted.

Gooch improved in the second half and did well to win the penalty, but Denver Hume struggled on the left as he adjusted to the new system.

So much of Sunderland’s play is about building the play and opening up the big switch across the pitch, creating an opening at the byline and getting in behind the opposition defence that way.

The wing-back roles, then, are absolutely crucial.

Hume proved his quality last season and evern as Sunderland look to sign competition, he will get a lot of opportunities to bounce back.

In his post-match assessment Ross admitted that the final ball is an area that must improve, though also suggested that he needed more from those in the box.

“I think results-wise we can't be satisfied with drawing at home because we know the consequences of doing that too often last season,” he said.

“We need to ensure we aim to win games. That was the aim but not the end result.

“It highlights the importance of not conceding soft goals in the early part of games because then it gives teams something to protect and it means we've got to push really hard and put a lot of energy into the game, which we did.

“We spent an awful lot of time in the final third. We had 34 crosses and we probably should have provided greater quality in that area and been more ruthless at both ends of the pitch.

“Over the piece we lacked a bit of composure in the final third,” he added.

“However to balance that, I don’t think every single ball we put in the box was a poor one. It's a combination of both – a better clarity of decision-making in the final third and that extra bit of hunger and belief to go and score.

“In terms of working the ball into the wide areas of the final third, it was good. In terms of that last bit of the game, which is ultimately the most difficult and most important part, we could do better.”

Defensively, Sunderland recovered from that early wobble and in the second half looked relatively secure.

After a very sluggish start, Conor McLaughlin improved and Jordan Willis showed the pace and strength that made him such a celebrated addition earlier in the summer.

That partnership down the left was an issue that will need to be worked on, both Hume and Tom Flanagan seemingly uncertain.

The Black Cat, too, will have to deal with the pressure better than they managed in the moments following that early setback. The expectation to win automatic promotion is immense this year and such frustration on the opening day underlined it.

Ross has much to ponder.

It wasn’t quite same old, same old, but there were familiar issues that need to be addressed and quickly.

Above all else, finding the right attacking combinations is the elusive task that the backroom staff simply have to get right.