Phil Smith's verdict: The classic Jack Ross gameplan that helped Sunderland show they are the real deal

Aiden McGeady thrived in a free role against Barnsley
Aiden McGeady thrived in a free role against Barnsley
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This had been seen as a barometer of Sunderland’s progress this season.

While their results have been good, staying above the two points a game formula that almost inevitably takes you out of this league, there have been some who have wondered whether their performances have made the results sustainable.

Derek Adams may have done so most strongly, but he was not the first to at least imply that Sunderland have ‘ridden their luck’.

So a clash with Barnsley, one of the best and most powerful sides in this division, was always going to be seen as a night where that theory would be put to the test.

A second half wobble, and admittedly a serious one at that, should not detract from how strongly the Black Cats came through that challenge.

They scored four and missed at least three other glorious opportunities.

Barnsley will feel the scoreline flattered the hosts but the plan Jack Ross devised took full advantage of their defensive frailties.

They gave up space in some areas of the pitch, but the gamble was that Sunderland’s attacking threat would settle the contest and so it proved.

Aiden McGeady moved infield for the first half after a stellar showing at Walsall, and the free role devised for him worked to perfection. He was central to a vibrant showing.

Sunderland played some superb football in a first-half glut and the visitors seemed unable to pick up the movement of a fluid front line.

A clearly restrained Max Power mopped up at the foot of midfield , while George Honeyman and Lynden Gooch covered extraordinary distances in front of him.

Their energy was crucial to ensuring Sunderland didn’t give up too much out wide.

They began superbly and if anything, the Black Cats should have put themselves further ahead, the usually ruthless Josh Maja missing two excellent opportunities from close range.

Barnsley’s comeback showcased their impressive forwards, Kieffer Moore exactly the kind of authentic, classy target man that most Black Cats supporters fear coming up against.

They created some overloads in the wide area but Ross knew that would happen.

His 4-3-1-2 was designed to exploit the gaps left in behind and while Barnsley looked for a while like levelling the scores, in truth Sunderland rallied and were much the better side in the closing stages.

Ross made a couple of alterations, dropping McGeady and Gooch into more orthodox wing roles and bringing on Luke O’Nien in advanced midfield. After a challenging game at Walsall, the importance of O’Nien’s energy cannot be overstated and his selfless performances from the bench are endearing him to the Black Cats faithful.

He could have even had a brace, just nodding another superb McGeady delivery wide shortly after his introduction.

This win was perhaps the closest we have seen a Sunderland side play to the style that Ross made his trademark at St Mirren.

He made some risky selections, deliberately breaking the game open and giving Barnsley a glimpse of space to attack.

That meant that they had difficult moments to survive and they were certainly on the ropes in the second half.

Afterwards, players and staff talked in glowing terms of Barnsley’s athleticism and their quality, the impressive Moore surely destined to play at a higher level.

The opening 35 minutes was some of the most enjoyable football seen on this turf for years and it came against an opponent who will almost certainly finish in a high position this season.

A red card for Bryan Oviedo meant that Sunderland couldn’t quite capitalise on an impressive performance against high-flying Peterborough United earlier this season.

While this may not quite have served as a ‘statement’ win, it was a mightily impressive one.

It showed that Sunderland are the real deal in this promotion race.