Phil Smith's verdict: The major positive that could be even more important than three points for Sunderland

There was a minute or two when you did fear that Sunderland might wilt.

Sunday, 18th August 2019, 12:00 pm
Updated Sunday, 18th August 2019, 12:10 pm
Jordan Willis rises to put Sunderland back on level terms against Portsmouth

It had been a poor start to the game and even if Portsmouth were not creating golden opportunities, their goal was certainly not against the run of play.

Sunderland’s passing and movement was poor, they were going long far too often and playing straight into the hands of their opponents who had an obvious advantage in the air.

When they conceded that self-inflicted goal, it looked a long way back and the visiting fans took delight in quickly goading Jack Ross.

It lasted a matter of minutes and from the moment Jordan Willis headed home Grant Leadbitter’s corner, Sunderland looked every inch a promotion contender.

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It was not a perfect performance by any stretch but they were good value for their three points and above all else, Ross looks closer to knowing his strongest XI and the partnerships within it that can deliver results.

It was to Sunderland’s immense credit that not only did they fight back from that early goal, it was they who did much of the pressing in the second half.

There were few clear cut chances, but then that was the case right through the five times these two sides played each other last season.

The Black Cats spent much of the second period in Pompey’s half and it never felt as if there was a concious effort to sit on the narrow lead.

Kenny Jackett changed shape, bringing on an extra striker and introducing Gareth Evans, so often influential in the last campaign. It made little impact, and it was not until the Portsmouth boss introduced Ross McCrorie that they began to exert some real pressure.

Sunderland were surprised by comments made by McCrorie shortly after he joined Portsmouth on loan, with the defender claiming that the Black Cats had tried to hijack the deal.

It wasn’t a deal Ross was pursuing but Portsmouth certainly seem to have made a very savvy signing.

He lost his place in the team after picking a red card on the opening day of the season but on this performance he will be back in the XI before long. He was playing in an unfamiliar right-back role but brought quality on the ball and real drive.

That pushed Sunderland back, but they came through the challenge and it said much that Jon McLaughlin’s biggest save came as Grant Leadbitter turned a cross from McCrorie towards goal.

John Marquis fired wide from a good position after the otherwise impressive Charlie Wyke lost the ball, but for the most part Sunderland stood firm.

McLaughlin was typically excellent in dominating his box, while Alim Ozturk and Jordan Willis picked up where they left off at Accrington Stanley and excelled in the closing periods.

Already, that has the look of a very promising partnership.

Both know their limitations on the ball and so make generally good decisions on it. Ozturk copes well with the physical side of League One football and the raw pace of Willis is a big bonus.

Further forward, Max Power recovered from his error in gifting the ball away for Portsmouth’s opener, and Grant Leadbitter delivered a tenacious performance that largely nullified Tom Naylor and Ben Close. Ross is getting a good balance in that part of the pitch and it speaks well of the summer recruitment work that George Dobson and Dylan McGeouch can drop into those roles and provide real continuity in terms of style and profile.

Further forward, Sunderland’s forwards are still searching for absolute sharpness after generally disrupted pre-season campaigns, but the link-up play was good at times and Lynden Gooch looks sharp.

Ross knows there is much to work on and much to improve.

After the match he again drew reference to the absolute necessity of Sunderland keeping more clean sheets, and the need to avoid starting games like this and falling behind.

There is still extra sharpness to be found in the final third but it was an unquestionably a win that significantly calms the waters on Wearside.

“As a football manager, you are always going to have pressure,” Ross said.

“But if you don’t want to feel big pressure, don’t manage a big club - but then you don’t get the rewards of managing a big club, leading a team in this stadium in front of these supporters.

“You can’t have one without the other.

“When I reflect on the start to the season, it has been solid,” he added.

“We would have liked it to be better but we have had some tough games - Oxford are a good side and will be, in my opinion, top part of the table, then Ipswich away and Portsmouth at home.

“We knew that, on paper, it was a tough start and the vultures probably thought it would be a tough start, and it has proven to be the case.

“But we have come out of it reasonably well.”

The challenge now is to turn that solid start to the season into a very good one and the next week provides a big opportunity.

Sunderland have areas to improve but this was a game that showed Ross is finding the shape and combinations that can make this side robust and a threat.

That may well be more important than the three points, as absolutely vital as they were.