Phil Smith's verdict: How Sunderland's top-two hopes unravelled and the shortcomings that were laid bare

As Sunderland drifted back towards the halfway line, you almost knew then that their automatic promotion hopes were gone.

Sunday, 18th April 2021, 12:00 pm

There were hands on hips, heads lifted towards the heavens, shoulders slumped.

Some goals just feel that little bit different and this was one of them. Sunderland looked beaten.

If in Tuesday night's defeat there had been rage and frantic energy aplenty, then just felt like deflation.

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Lee Johnson watches on at Blackpool

Moments earlier, you held your breath and wondered if this was going to be a very different kind of turning point. Blackpool had headed everything up until the hour mark, but here was just the slightest slip as a clearance fell to Aiden McGeady.

All of a sudden there was that extra yard of space, that extra second to cut inside onto his right.

The shot was off and it looked in, definitely in, right until the moment it wasn't. Before you could blink, the ball had been given away. One deflection later and that was that.

Sunderland weren't to know it then, but Hull City were turning their 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead.

The next few minutes drifted by, Lee Johnson s side in a daze as they rued their luck on this day, and a week in which months of hard work and optimism had all but evaporated.

After a while they did steady, and in the final 20 minutes they had most of the ball.

They did forge some openings, it must be said. Luke O'Nien had one effort cleared off the line, the territory and possession all Sunderland's.

Chris Maxwell by and large went untested, though, and in that was the story of the week.

Johnson said afterwards he would not vilify his players and that was fair; there was next to nothing in this contest. Blackpool needed that deflection to get ahead and aside for one glorious opening for Ellis Simms in the first half, they created little.

It was another new partnership at the heart of defence for Sunderland, and yet Jerry Yates, one of the best strikers across the division this season, had next to no impact.

Johnson had called for a response from that dismal display at Wigan Athletic and his team selection felt like something a back-to-basics approach.

Aiden O'Brien and Grant Leadbitter returned to give it a familiar looking shape and for much of the first half, there was a good element of control about the performance.

Control, but no cutting edge.

On countless occasions Sunderland played their way into relatively promising positions, but too often the final ball was lacking.

Part of that, undoubtedly, was due to two superb Blackpool performances. Their excellent form has been built on the bedrock of a strong defensive record and it was easy to see why. Sunderland's crossing was disappointing, but the speed and confidence with which Dan Ballard and Daniel Leo Gretarsson dealt with anything that did find its way into a dangerous area was impressive.

Sunderland had to try and find something different, and it was that here they were found wanting.

Johnson afterwards dissected the week that was and his assessment was that there had been two decent performances, and one (at Wigan) where his side had fallen well short.

There was perhaps not a great deal of difference between this defeat and some of the crucial wins during the long unbeaten run.

So what's changed?

Soft goals conceded, for one. Four of the five goals shipped across the week have come from set plays and the other was self-inflicted. Perhaps fatigue has been a part of that, but concentration and application of the basics is crucial at this stage of the season and Johnson’s side have not been able to deliver.

At the other end, their attacking limitations have perhaps caught up with them.

Injuries have not helped their fluidity in recent times (Johnson has not once been able to name the team that pressed and created impressive against Doncaster) but as they laboured towards the end of this game, it was hard not to wonder whether their attacking play has become too predictable.

No team crosses more regularly in this division, but from central areas their output is modest. They have rarely scored goals from midfield, and the kind of counter-attacking that put Lincoln to the sword in December has not been seen anywhere near often enough since.

It was this kind of performance that left supporters nervous in the opening weeks and months of the season. An afternoon where for sure, Sunderland looked resilient and hard to play through. Positives to take, but with a nagging fear and frustration that the chances were too few and far between, the play far too one-paced for the most part.

It does not feel like an overreaction to say that whatever happens between now and the end of the season, there will need to be work done if Sunderland are able to deliver the high-octane, dynamic style that has been promised for the long-term.

The task for Johnson is to ensure that this season does not fizzle out.

Sunderland have not lost three games in a row since dropping down to League One and even if there are shortcomings in this group (and a still remarkable injury list in defence), they are without a doubt far better than that kind of record.

It's a record that has left the club facing a month of purgatory before the play-off campaign rolls around, when thoughts of what might have been and what has been lost are inevitable.

First and foremost, results are needed to ensure that the top-six spot is secured.

Next is to ensure that the club can enter that shootout with some sense of momentum and positivity.

There was misfortune in this defeat, but if Sunderland are to win promotion they are going to have to be both better and tougher than they have been in this most wretched of weeks.

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