Phil Smith's verdict: Sunderland's open approach pays off and leaves Jack Ross with some big decisions to make for Portsmouth visit

John Coleman’s post-match comments caught the eye and they’re worth dwelling on when considering how Sunderland might succeed this season.

By Phil Smith
Wednesday, 14 August, 2019, 16:45
Sunderland's attack celebrate the first goal against Accrington Stanley

The Accrington Stanley boss made bizarre reference to ‘dodgy things’ going on, which we will probably never get to the bottom of. The two dugouts were at loggerheads throughout the second half and it boiled over near stoppage time when play was stopped for a clash of heads near the home box.

James Fowler was booked in the ensuing debate and Coleman raged on at Jack Ross right until the final whistle.

His anger was still visible when he conducted his post-match duties and may explain that particular comment.

His assessment of the game, though makes for interesting reading.

“I'm frustrated because it's a game we could, and should, have won,” he said, speaking to BBC Radio Lancashire.

"In the first half there was some slick passing from both teams. They carved out a good opportunity and took it - it was a great goal.

"Then we've done the same to them and miss an open goal.

"It was two teams playing good football and in the second half we stepped things up a bit and I don't think anyone could argue that we were the better team for the next 25 minutes.

"We got the penalty and we forced them back, and they hadn't been near our goal.

"Then there was a couple of dodgy things went on and they ended up hitting the underside of the bar, and we dodged a bullet with that,” he added.

"But then we had a terrible mix-up in midfield and if you give Aiden McGeady a chance to run at you...

"He's a quality player, and the third goal was a non-event because we were throwing everything forward.

"I don't think they deserved to win by two goals if they deserved to win at all."

The first thing to say is that his comments surely stretch credibility, with Sunderland the better side by just about every metric.

Sunderland had better chances, forced more saves from the opposition goalkeeper, had more of the ball, more time in the opposition half.

It’s true, though, that they gave Accrington Stanley plent of opportunities throughout the game to break and get bodies in the final third. As Coleman noted, they ought to have equalised in the first half when Colby Bishop seemed to stand on the ball with the goal gaping, giving Sunderland time to recover.

They won some dangerous free-kicks when breaking at speed and had a couple of long-range efforts that briefly had Lee Burge looking worried.

But given the line-up picked by Ross, this was an inevitability.

We saw this gameplan from the Sunderland boss on occasions last season, accepting that his side would give up chances in the belief that such were the attacking players he had picked, they would do more with their openings at the other end.

This felt like a classic example and the hosts did have their moments, it was Sunderland who produced by far the most enterprising play in the final third.

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Having bodies around him confirmed what onlookers had come to suspect, that Marc McNulty is a lively, intelligent forward who has the capability to be a major success this season.

It was not all fluid, threatening football, certainly.

Sunderland did nto start the second half particularly well and though they had not been threatened particularly before giving away a penalty, there had been too many aimless balls forward and not enough of the crisp passing that Max Power in particular had so impressively laid on in the first half.

Without doubt, Sunderland needed a spark of individual inspiration to get themselves going again and Aiden McGeady provided it with a goal that was just him at his absolute best.

Quality on the ball and in the finish, absolutely, but the genuine tenacity that often doesn’t get the praise it deserves.

From there the away side were dominant and they arguably should have ended up with more than the three goals they registered.

Ross was asked afterwards about his system change and whether that was due to the opposition and the circumstances.

The Sunderland boss said that he had wanted to play with two strikers and given the personnel in his side, it made sense to therefore go to a back four.

This was unquestionably a more fluid, convincing display than the opening two games, though the manager would counter that was much because of the application of his players as it was the system.

He insisted that while he wanted continuity of selection, flexibility would be key this season.

It is, of course, more about personnel and combinations than formations and that was shown here. Ross took a gamble in selecting players he knew would leave gaps, that might well give the ball away in dangerous areas, but that would ultimately cause the opposition defensive problems. Did the general shape help in that endeavour, too? Probably.

It paid off, and leaves him with some big decisions to make for the visit of Portsmouth on Saturday.

It seems unlikely that Sunderland will be quite so open against a side with so much power in their attack, but then it worked when Barnsley visited last year, and it almost did in the final minutes at Portman Road, too. There were times, too, when it really didn’t work. The most attacking side Ross picked was away at Burton Albion and they were played off the park for the most part.

This early season form has shown the delicate balance to be struck between flexibility and continuity, and perhaps this relatively comfortable win will answer a lot of questions for Ross about his side.

In terms of pure personnel, this game also gave him some welcome headaches.

Power was excellent and dominant in midfield, and while his distribution can be improved, Alim Ozturk’s defending was robust and more of what we saw towards the end of last season.

In goal, Lee Burge was impressive and that could be a key weapon in international weeks if Ross decided he wants to try and avoid the fixture pile-up of last year.

This was never going to be a defining fixture for Ross or Sunderland, and that league game on Saturday looms large.

But there was much to learn here that could make it a very significant night nonetheless.