Phil Smith's verdict: The story of two very different wins in a big week for Jack Ross

Two very different games, two very different wins.

Sunday, 29th September 2019, 12:23 pm
Updated Sunday, 29th September 2019, 12:49 pm
Jack Ross saw his side pick up two valuable wins this week

There had, not unreasonably, been some bemusement that Sunderland could be fairly insipid against Bolton Wanderers and roar back with a deserved win over Sheffield United, a side who, yes, made a number of changes but performed superbly against the European Champions on Saturday to underline their quality.

In truth, the game had presented a very different challenge and perhaps it suited the Black Cats at a moment of pressure.

Max Power got them a lead with a stunning strike and as Jack Ross reflected on Thursday, thereafter they had quite rightly won roars of approval for the kind of display they often cannot execute in League One.

There was attacking intent at times but for the most part it was about intelligent pressing, covering huge distances off the ball, picking up intelligent positions in defence and putting bodies on the line in the defensive third.

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They implemented it superbly and Chris Wilder had no qualms about the result.

This was always going to be a very different kind of challenge and in it was underlined in a sedate opening 20 minutes, in which MK Dons sat off the ball and only occasionally showed any kind of intent on the counter.

The home side had one or two dangerous moments with the kind of early ball into space that Ross always encourages, particularly on home turf.

Still, it needed Power to intervene with another moment of quite remarkable quality to set his side on their way.

They had been the better side but just lacking that final moment of incision. Power delivered it, a strike even better than his one at Bramall Lane, running onto a pass into his stride and placing it first time into the far corner.

To see Sunderland then power through the gears so quickly and so emphatically was a tonic after some frustrating showings in the league.

They were dynamic, well balanced, doubled their lead and should have extended it even further.

The second half was not as straightforward as it could have been, and for all his obvious delight with large parts of the showing, Ross was clearly frustrated with that.

A very soft goal gave MK Dons a lifeline and inevitably, it made for a nervy final quarter as Sunderland were left ultimately having to protect their lead.

Not being able to kill teams off has been an issue for this side and perhaps the main reason why these two crucial wins will not win over all doubters.

They had started the second half well enough, in fairness.

MK Dons certainly played with more intensity after a chance to regroup, more purposeful in their possession.

Sunderland, though, had matched them, and created the better openings in the half.

Lynden Gooch should have done better when free in the box, Chris Maguire went close with a free kick and Power forced another good save from Lee Nicholls in the away goal.

Even if they had improved, the away side scored with their first effort on goal after the break.

It was a poor once to concede, a frustration for Ross as his defence is improving significantly after looking vulnerable for much of last season.

They underlined that with another strong rearguard to follow that Sheffield United win, MK Dons threatening late on but not drawing another significant save from Jon McLaughlin.

Ross had spoken at length with his players after that acrimonious afternoon at Bolton, about the pressures they are facing this season, dealing with it and improving.

He had tried to take the heat post-match, urging any criticism to be aimed at him after fans had angrily voiced their frustrations with him during a flat performance that had taken loo long to spark into life.

The endeavour they showed at Bramall Lane showed that he had got a response. The response at full time from travelling supporters was fierce and proud, a reflection of the performance on show.

In that sense it was a very important stepping stone to what was always going to a more important game.

It was a deserved win.

Not a perfect one, but one that puts Sunderland very much back on track and with much to build on.

In Joel Lynch and Laurens De Bock, he has perhaps the biggest positive of the week.

Lynch solved a tactical issue in that at long last, Ross has a natural left-sided centre back. His dominance in the air and composure in making decisions also looks a valuable addition, superb in the latter stages of both games.

De Bock keeps it simple, defends well and picks his moments to get forward.

On the other flank, Conor McLaughlin is steadily improving and that is allowing Ross to give Luke O’Nien a run further forward. At the moment, it is working superbly.

O’Nien makes unselfish runs to open spaces for others, his spell at right-back has turned him into a very good aerial competitior, and his delicate chip on Saturday afternoon showed that he has the quality to turn all that running into end product.

Ross was level-headed after both these wins, as he had been after the frustration of the previous week.

He knows this has to be the start of a climb towards the top two.

He has shown, though, that he has a side united and with belief in his methods, delivering the results despite missing arguably his two biggest attacking threats in Aiden McGeady and Marc McNulty.