Phil Smith's verdict: The concerns emerging for Sunderland after woeful first half and what has to happen next

There was a moment in the first half when Paul Lambert responded to a covering tackle by racing down his dugout, pumping his fist in the manner that Jurgen Klopp has made his trademark.

By Phil Smith
Sunday, 11 August, 2019, 12:08
Sunderland rescued a point after a poor first half at Portman Road

Lambert is not shy of referencing his Champions League win at Borussia Dortmund and it is clear there is much about that club and its ‘heavy-metal football’ era that he wishes to bring to League One this season.

This particular response was perhaps a touch theatrical, but it was a genuinely excellent piece of tracking back from young midfielder Flynn Downes and summed up the gulf between the two sides.

Aiden McGeady had broken into space in what was a rare early opening for Sunderland, but Downes shut the move down and put the pressure straight back on the away side.

There was nothing overly sophisticated about Ipswich’s approach but that is a compliment, rather than a critique.

They fired long balls into the gap between Sunderland’s centre-backs and wing-backs, with their two abrasive strikers chasing every ball into every corner and every yard of turf.

Their pressing was excellent and they forced Sunderland into going long time after time.

If the ball did not drift straight out of play, their centre-backs swiftly swept up and the pressure was applied once more.

For Jack Ross, there is much to pick through in what was one of the most alarmingly abject 45 minutes of his Sunderland tenure to date.

The debate will natually centre around his 3-4-2-1 system and it is not without merit.

Here, it misfired badly.

The manager’s decision to change it towards the end of the half was an admission of that. Ross did say, though, that it was the failure to do the fundamentals of the game that primarily led to such a disjointed performance.

There was some merit in that, the failure to win individual battles or second balls allowing Ipswich to establish complete territorial dominance. Sunderland actually saw plenty of the ball in the first half, but none of it in dangerous areas and when it came to meaningul forays into the opposition’s final third, there was only one team registering.

While this was unquestionaby a failure of application and endeavour, it would be remiss to suggest that there were not some serious structural problems, too.

Though both results this season have been frustrating, the failings have been different.

Last week, Ross said with some justification that though the delivery and movement in the final third was lacking, the approach play was generally good and Sunderland did well in ensuring they had plenty of bodies ahead of the ball.

It had been his key message during the week before that Oxford draw, after spotting issues in the loss to Heerenveen.

Here, Sunderland could not get out of their half.

Ipswich had the wind on their backs but the woeful distribution from the back left Sunderland unable to build any pressure on the ball and most worryingly, it was not balanced by greater defensive stability.

Marc McNulty had a bitterly frustrating first half, forced into playing a target man role he is clearly not equipped for. Caught offside from dead ball situations, regularly giving cheap fouls away as he fought a physical battle with the Ipswich defenders that he could not win.

He was one of many transformed in the second half.

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That drastic improvement in performance is a source of both reassurance and concern.

Ross will take criticism for being forced into numerous changes of system throughout the game, but his pragmatism and willingness to accept failings ultimately got his team out of jail.

The fact that his half-time blast yielded a tenacious response from his players also reflects well.

Sunderland were not dominant in the second half by any stretch but then, on paper, this is clearly one of the toughest fixtures they will have all season.

Ipswich had plenty of openings but the aggressive approach of their opponents forced them into the kind of errors we simply did not see in the opening 45. Frustration grew in the home stands and a touch more composure in the final third could well have won it for Ross and his team.

McNulty suddenly looked back to his lively and inventive self, Will Grigg was bright and the movement fluid.

Much if it, without question, can be attributed to a subsitute cameo from Chris Maguire of serious quality.

His sense of positioning was excellent, drifting into the gaps left behind as Ipswich pushed for a winner, offering an out ball that could quickly turn defence into dangerous attack.

He held onto the ball superbly and drew fouls that dragged his side up the pitch.

It was leadership in a footballing sense and his team thrived on that spirit of adevnture.

It was instructive, too, that defensively Jordan Willis seemed to thrive when Sunderland went to a back four. So uncertain previously, he relished the added pressure and jeopardy, marshaling the lively James Norwood with ease and showcasing his exceptional pace for a defender.

An injury that saw him come off with five to play was a serious concern.

In isolation, this is a reasonable point at a tough ground. Ipswich are attacking this season with real clarity and on this evidence, a lot of teams will come away from Portman Road with nothing.

Context, though, is everything and Sunderland need to find their right combinations quickly.

The latter stages showed they can played not just with tenacity but with invention. This will not be an easy league this season and to come out on top far more consistency is required.

To produce encouraging 20-minute spells will not be enough.

There is much to ponder and much to improve.

There have been frustrating results over the last 12 months but not too many occasions when they have been outfought and outplayed as they were in that opening half.

The last time it happened (giving leeway to the games at the end of last season when Sunderland’s play-off fate was already confirmed), Ross responded to a defeat at Burton Albion by settling on a formula that sparked a 12-game unbeaten run, with eight wins.

The clarity and consistency they had then is needed again.