Phil Smith's verdict: The key questions raised on a night of frustration for Sunderland

Clark Robertson scythed down Lynden Gooch and in the dug-out, there was a huge pump of the fist from Jack Ross.

Wednesday, 18th September 2019, 11:47 am
Updated Wednesday, 18th September 2019, 12:12 pm
Jake Hastie puts Rotherham United level at the Stadium of Light

So far, so very good.

Ross had been in bullish form in his pre-match press conference on Monday, uncharacteristically confrontational when dealing with a suggestion that the Accrington Stanley match represented a ‘good win, not a great performance’.

Quite fairly, he argued that no successful side in history played well in every game over the course of the season.

At Accrington, they had scored three superb goals and comfortably secured the three points.

Sign up to our Sunderland AFC newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Absolutely, there was room for improvement. Denver Hume admitted as much in his post-match interview and was clear that privately, the manager had demanded more, too.

This clash with Rotherham offered a big opportunity against a side expected to challenge for a play-off place at a minimum.

At the point Gooch was fouled, Ross had every right to be satisfied.

He had made an eye-catching change in moving Luke O’Nien further forward, taking up the attacking midfield role he had played in the 3-1 win over Burnley last month.

Dropping Chris Maguire to the bench had been a pragmatic move, given he had almost missed the trip to Accrington with an ankle injury.

It would have been easier, though, to bring in Will Grigg or Charlie Wyke, maintaining the general shape and structure of the side and dropping Marc McNulty slightly deeper.

Rotherham, though, are a direct and energetic side and Ross wanted to match that.

A side with O’Nien, Gooch and George Dobson in advanced areas is one that will always miss a touch of composure, but make up for it with energy and intensity.

Sunderland rattled Rotherham, won the ball in dangerous areas and attacked in numbers.

More speficically, the faith in McNulty to lead the line was repaid handsomely.

Less than a minute was on the clock when Alim Ozturk found his smart run off the shoulder, the striker showing good composure to round the keeper and score.

Aiden McGeady, enjoying the open game and his side’s willingness to find him early, went close with a fine effort.

That McNulty run paid off again for the penalty, this time Jordan Willis finding him with an early ball over the top.

Gooch took it on and did the rest.

So far, so very good.

The penalty taker debate at Sunderland is an interesting one and for a positive reason.

Lynden Gooch, Grant Leadbitter and Will Grigg would all be first choice at most other clubs. Ross doesn’t specify one, comfortable in the belief that whoever wants to take it and steps up first is the best person.

McGeady has done nothing to suggest it shouldn’t be him.

His technique last season was mightily effective and no one in the Stadium of Light would have expected him to miss. His late feint caught out goalkeepers time after time last season.

Whether this miss was merely a rare moment of poor execution, or a sign that the opposition have taken note, only the winger can answer. Few would bet against him scoring next time he steps up, such is his composure and quality.

The impact on this contest was significant.

Within a minute, Rotherham had broken at speed and Dobson was forced to take a yellow card as he intervened.

That had an impact, too, the youngster more cautious after that and less effective in flying into tackles and interceptions.

The contrast in the team’s showing for the last hour of the game was stark.

They were direct but less purposeful, less structured and significantly less effective.

Rotherham should have equalised before the break when they had three clear openings, and their start to the secodn half meant that it came as no great surprise when Jake Hastie fired a strong effort past Jon McLaughlin.

The Scot had done superbly just moments before to deny the Rangers loanee, flying off his line after the visitors again worked an overlap on that side.

In the opening exchanges, Sunderland’s open gameplan left space on the counter but they defended it resolutely enough and always looked they would capitalise when they made breaks of their own.

That wasn’t the case in the second half, when neither side looked to have much control over the game.

The final scoreline felt painfully familiar, though no one could accuse Ross of settling for a point.

McNulty was withdrawn relatively early in the second half, but he ended the game with Will Grigg, Charlie Wyke, Aiden McGeady and Chris Maguire in an ultra-attacking front four.

It almost worked, Wyke missing a glorious opportunity when he went through one-on-one.

Those changes saw O’Nien drop back to right-back and for all his impressive industry further forward, it was at this point that he looked most threatening. On two occasions he found himself advancing into space in the box but on both occasions just lacked the vital composure.

In truth, that was the case all over the park.

The last 20 minutes saw Sunderland show plenty of intent, but the way the game developed meant there was little in the way of sustained pressure or attacking patterns.

Rotherham were more than worthy of their point and that will frustrate Ross.

After the game his main message was again that it is in the defensive third that Sunderland must improve, still waiting for their first clean sheet of the season.

He will be concerned, too, though, at the lack of ruthlessness that we saw too often on home turf in the second half of the last campaign.

Rotherham, to be clear, will be up there at the end of the season.

Their start to this campaign has been underwhelming but most observers felt they were very unfortunate to be relegated last season.

Freddie Ladapo is a good forward and showed it here. Hastie is a real threat and Robertson is a player the Black Cats tried to sign last summer.

They will take plenty of points from sides near the top.

In isolation this was not a result to derail Sunderland, far from it, but there are plenty of areas for improvement and while Ross will always defend his side, he will know that better than anyone.