Phil Smith's verdict: Sunderland simply have to be better than this dispiriting week

Assessing weeks and afternoons like this can be a difficult business, the need to balance a dispiriting feeling with the wider reality.

Sunday, 10th November 2019, 12:34 pm
Updated Sunday, 10th November 2019, 12:41 pm

All clubs, at some stage or other, go through these games that feel like a chore and an inconvenience.

Sunderland experienced it themselves earlier in the season, Carabao Cup ties in which they excelled but benefited too from opposition whose primary attention was elsewhere.

Phil Parkinson has been fairly clear in his approach to these fixtures.

Sunderland concede against Leicester City U21s earlier this week

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He wants wins but above all else he wants to learn, to get a full understanding of what he has at his disposal so that his plans for the January window can be formed as early as possible.

Perhaps that is where the nagging concern comes from after a flat and challenging afternoon at the Stadium of Light.

Right now, the picture doesn’t look too rosy.

On Tuesday night, Parkinson had named a side that were ultimately overrun by Leicester City’s youngsters, struggling to create chances at the other end.

It was concerning but also a reflection of a side Parkinson admitted lacked both balance and match fitness.

The wider reality of where the lies in Sunderland’s priorities this season is no secret.

This XI for the visit of Gillingham was closer to his starting XI and in the first half they efficiently went about their jobs.

Some early calls from the new manager, in particular his preference for a midfield two of Max Power and George Dobson, looked sound.

Power tidy, Dobson effervescent.

Sunderland moved it well enough and looked by far the better side.

If there was one criticism it was a familiar one. As Parkinson himself has spoken of regularly, a failure to turn that apparent control into efforts on target, Jack Bonham largely unworked other than Aiden McGeady’s effort that he insisted to his frustrated manager took a deflection en route to the bottom corner.

Chris Maguire’s volley just before the break should have put Sunderland ahead but it was only their fourth effort of the game.

The second half was altogether more concerning.

The Black Cats were without a doubt thrown by Jon McLaughlin’s major error just moments into the second half, but Parkinson also quite rightly made clear that he was just one of a number of players not to do their jobs as Gillingham stepped up their pressing and intensity.

Headers were lost, second balls lost, cheap free-kicks conceded.

The harsh reality of life as a goalkeeper is that McLaughlin will almost certainly pay with his place where others will not.

That flatness did not change after the goal and the away side were more than worthy of their place in the draw on Monday night.

They could have made it there outright and Sunderland could not have had too many complaints.

Most concerning is that again Parkinson’s frontline looked short on energy and confidence, improved slightly by the arrival of Marc McNulty and Duncan Watmore but not significantly.

It is in this area that the manager surely he knows he has the most work to do, certainly on the training pitch in the coming weeks and perhaps then in the January window.

The results have dipped since Parkinson arrived but the picture is of course more complicated than that.

There is a structure he is clearly trying to implement and in patches there has been promise.

He reflected on that himself when discussing that record, now two wins in seven matches, after the game.

“It’s having the ability to sustain performance across 90 minutes,” he said.

“We’ve played well for 45 today, and we’ve got become a team that plays well throughout the game.

“Even when the momentum of the game changes, we’ve got to come through it better and we’ve really got to work with the lads [on that].”

Perhaps this sense of unease and concern will come to be seen later in the campaign as a lull and a necessary stage of teething.

Parkinson is clearly encouraged by the attitude of his squad and much of the way they have implemented his messages, even as he urges them to be stronger on days like Saturday.

Off the field, the arrival of Nick Allamby as physical performance coach is a sign of rebuilding process beginning in key departments, as needed as much as it has been discussed.

Planning for January is well under way and the Black Cats boss seems confident that he will be able to make the necessary adjustments.

The simple truth is that is has to be a lull, a pause and moment of unease before progression.

The buy-in from Sunderland’s support since relegation to the third-tier has been remarkable but it will be tested if this sense of stagnation is allowed to grow further.

Uninspiring weeks such as these only cement that, even if the importance of these cups pales in comparison to the league fixtures that loom towards the end of the month.

Sunderland simply cannot afford to become a club that looks comfortable with where it is, on the pitch or off it.

This period of transition will need to deliver results when they key tests arrive.

Sunderland simply have to be better than this.