Phil Smith's verdict: Sunderland are approaching a crossroads and Jack Ross is just one part of it

It was one of the more blunt post-match press conferences that Jack Ross will deliver.

Sunday, 6th October 2019, 12:48 pm
Updated Sunday, 6th October 2019, 2:41 pm
Pressure is mounting on Jack Ross after the 2-0 defeat to Lincoln City

There have been times when a disappointing result has led to a defensive approach, the manager eager to protect his players and their application.

For even if there have been doubts about their performance on a number of occasions, rarely have there been too many doubts over the endeavour.

Over 75 games in charge, Ross’ side have been a resilient one even if they found real control of his league elusive.

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On this occasion, Ross felt no such need to protect either himself or his team.

They didn’t do the basics, they were comprehensively outplayed, they deserved nothing from the game.

That, he said, would fall on him. His job to motivate the team, to prepare, to do better.

It was an afternoon that clearly stung.

With the Fleetwood game postponed, Ross now faces a two-week inquest and his future will be the subject of fierce debate.

This was damning afternoon in which his side were outfought off the ball and completely outplayed on it.

Lincoln City were undoubtedly helped by a bad early error from Jon McLaughlin, allowing them in the second half to play a counter-attacking game that suited their athletic front four wonderfully.

Jack Payne, so badly out of place in a woeful Bradford City side season, was full of invention and guile.

Bruno Andrade and Tyler Walker tormented the Sunderland back line, lively on the ball and irrepressible off it.

Too often, when Sunderland found themselves on the ball in the opposition half, the movement was static, the passing predictable and too easy to defend against.

The Black Cats didn’t have a presence to hold it up and get them into the game that way, nor did they stretch a defence experienced but lacking athleticism.

Michael Appleton admitted after the game that he had been surprised by how direct Sunderland had played.

Whether by design or through a lack of conviction and confidence in possession, it reflected badly on a Sunderland side that fired plenty of balls into the box, but with little quality and seemingly little intensity to get on the end of them.

So here we are, at a curious crossroads, 11 games into a season that feels like it has already gone deep into winter.

That in itself is easy to explain, a post-Wembley fatigue, protracted takeover uncertainty and a start to the season that has been OK at best but dipped well below that at Sincil Bank.

Sunderland remain in a position where they have absolutely every chance of going on and sealing automatic promotion.

Despite this display, their position in the table remains virtually unaffected, Ipswich the only side in the top ten to win yesterday.

Four points off second with a game in hand is not an irretrievable position.

Ross, though, was blunt in saying that it ‘is not okay’ that Paul Lambert’s side have already opened up an eight point lead.

As long as that remains the case, he will have work to do in winning back supporters and any poor result or performance will weaken his case.

It’s a difficult situation to manage in and without doubt, his biggest test yet since taking charge in what has already been a turbulent sixteen months or so.

His future, though, is only one part of the puzzle.

Just how good is this squad?

It’s a subjective debate with no easy answer.

Unquestionably, it is one that should challenge for automatic promotion. With each passing game, however, it seems a stretch to say that it is clearly the best by some distance or one that should be dominant.

Even if there is pedigree, experience and quality in their ranks, there is an obvious lack of raw pace.

There is a lack of consistency in performance that the manager must take some responsibility for but the players must, too.

Perhaps a better way to put it is that there are structural issues that will not be solved overnight.

Sunderland made some good additions in the summer window, picking up promising players at value for money.

They lost some good players, too, and there was plenty of investment from the sides around them.

An excuse for this performance? Absolutely not. They are far better than this.

But it underlines the need for clarity and a resolution to the uncertainty off the pitch.

Sunderland have now been in some stage of takeover talks for an extensive period. Back in March, Charlie Methven said active conversations had been happening since September.

On two occasions, now, they have been relatively well advanced.

Ross has met with different investors, one of whom was set to install a Director of Football who would have taken over the signings the Black Cats then had to go out and find.

The need to get the right deal for the club remains paramount and as such, no one would take issue with a delay so long as it ensured that the right people take charge and on the right terms.

While it continues, though, it becomes difficult for Sunderland to drive forward as a club, whether it be in recruitment department or anywhere else.

An obvious need for discretion and caution at boardroom level while talks continue nevertheless means Ross is increasingly isolated.

In his own words, he needs to do better than what his team produced on Saturday.

This break, though, offers the club as a whole to step back and reflect.

They’re approaching a crossroads and the manager is just one part of that.