Phil Smith's verdict: Sunderland show promise but are falling well off League One promotion pace
One of the biggest frustrations following Sunderland this season has been a lack of consistency in performance, both individually and collectively.
Too often, a promising performance, when a promising shape and blend of partnerships seemed to emerge, a poor showing set the Black Cats back.
One step forward, one straight back.
So this felt like an early test, both for Phil Parkinson and his squad.
They had been superb against Tranmere Rovers, robust in defence and inventive in attack. The energy and pressing was excellent right throughout the contest and Micky Mellon’s side were simply overwhelmed.
So could they go and to it again a few days later?
Parkinson laid down the gauntlet to his players, the only change to his XI an enforced one as Aiden McGeady replaced the injured Lynden Gooch.
The opportunity was there to begin nailing down positions in the manager’s preferred side.
A fourth defeat of the season (all of them away from home) suggested an inability to do that, although in truth the picture is more complicated.
This was the second 1-0 defeat of Parkinson’s tenure but the games themselves could hardly have been more different in shape.
At Wycombe Parkinson got off to the worst possible start, his side not only beaten but insipid in their play. They created very little in the final third, reduced too often to aimless long balls down the field.
Wycombe were entirely comfortable and worthy winners.
Before this game the Black Cats boss had urged his side to build on that demolition of Tranmere by producing a ‘front-foot performance’ of a home team.
For the most part, they did do that.
Sunderland dominated possession and territory.
From defence up to the final third, they were the better side. Rarely did they go direct and gift possession away. The build-up play was fluid at times and over the course of the game they hit the woodwork three times.
After the contest, Parkinson was effusive in his praise for his players, for their performance if not the result.
“We have totally dominated the game and the one attempt from them has resulted in a goal,” he said.
“We have hit the bar and post three times; we have had balls flash across the six-yard box and had some great chances to not just draw the game but win it.
“In terms of the way we wanted to set out I couldn’t have asked for anymore but as everyone knows it’s all about sticking the ball in the back of the net.
“We have completely dominated the game, if we keep playing like that then we are going to win a hell of a lot of games at this level.”
The away side were certainly unlucky to get nothing from the game.
Shrewsbury Town Sam Ricketts has faced some criticism for his approach and over the course of 90 minutes, they made very little impression in the opposition half.
They were heavily reliant on the impressive Josh Laurent, whose ability to drive forward on the ball caused problems throughout and was at the heart of the first and ultimately crucial goal.
That was poor defending from the home side, passive in both allowing him to get free and deliver a cross.
It was good movement and a good finish from Jason Cummings, but the striker came under very little pressure as he fired past an unmoved Lee Burge.
Shrewsbury, for their part, felt they had implemented a gameplan and carried it off.
Ricketts said his players won their battles all over the pitch.
What is clear that Sunderland lacked the necessarily ruthlessness in both boxes to turn a decent display into one that delivered three valuable points.
In the final third they were left wanting in their decision making and perhaps a touch of intensity, even if the home side were indebted to the woodwork.
It is fair, though, for Parkinson to draw positives from the general play of his side.
That has to be balanced nevertheless against more lost ground in the battle for promotion. It remains very early days in the season but an eight-point gap to second is concerning, even with a game in hand.
This was Sunderland’s fourth defeat of the season, a moment that in the last campaign did not arrive until the 5-4 defeat to Coventry City on April 13th.
It was also the fourth time they have failed to scored in a league game this season. Last time, that only happened once in the entire 46-game campaign.
Their away form is now a clear concern and more generally, their points-per-game ration has dipped below 1.6, well short of what history says will be required to find a position in the top two.
So it was a day when the result was more concerning than the performance.
But the latter must produce the former more regularly, and quickly.
Sunderland are still well short of the consistency, both in results and performances, that will allow them to launch a sustained push at the top two.
It’s a major concern, even if there were encouraging signs at Shrewsbury.