Phil Smith's verdict: Inside a brutal night for Sunderland as their composure deserts them at the crucial moment

The most frustrating part was that Sunderland had done so much of the hard work.

Wednesday, 14th April 2021, 12:30 pm
Updated Wednesday, 14th April 2021, 12:47 pm

To know that, you just had to look to the opposition dugout.

Leam Richardson had been constantly cajoling his players through the first half hour, micro-managing the defence of every set piece as the Black Cats built pressure.

After the opening goal he stood for a minute, arms folded and downbeat, a water bottle then chucked to his side in agitation.

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Sunderland fell to a damaging defeat at the DW Stadium on Tuesday night

It had been far from the perfect start from Sunderland, to be sure.

Lee Johnson felt that off the ball their shape wasn't quite right, and there were some mitigating factors in that.

Johnson had been forced to shuffle his pack in the hour before kick off, Conor McLaughlin unable to run in the warm up with a hernia issue.

Wigan exploited the uncertainty well. On their left flank Viv Solomon-Otabor caused Luke O'Nien problems as he adjusted to another change in position, while Richardson's clever set up also posed problems on the other flank.

This was a much more experienced side than the one the Black Cats faced in December and the presence of Callum Lang on the right underlined it.

Denver Hume was handed a tough brief on his return to the starting XI for the first time since that return fixture, and Wigan unsurprisingly went direct down that side with regularity.

Sunderland, though, came through that early challenge.

On the ball they were a constant threat, Jack Diamond in particular showing real quality in possession and with Aiden McGeady enjoying the freedom to find space from a central role, Wigan struggled to contain them.

One of Sunderland's justified frustrations was that relentless tactical fouling went unpunished by the referee, who somehow showed the first yellow card of the contest in the 37th minute.

The opening goal was superb, composure from McGeady and Wyke as two touches cut apart the relegation battlers.

A major advantage, hard earned.

It made what followed both all the more baffling, and all the more frustrating.

Through Lang and Solomon-Otabor Wigan had a threat of their own in transition, while the quality and experience of Lee Evans in midfield meant they were never likely to be entirely overrun.

Both their goals, though, were gifted to them entirely.

On the first occasion, Sunderland lost both the first and second ball from a corner. On the second, remarkably, they were beaten to four balls.

On both occasions, Joe Dodoo was left free at the back post to produce the assist.

After shipping two set play goals on Saturday, Johnson had urged his side to address the fundamentals and given the form they had displayed over the previous thirteen games, there was reason to believe they could do exactly that.

The key was always going to be in the reaction, and here it fell well, well short.

Perhaps most alarming was the reaction that followed the second goal.

Sunderland had plenty of possession, and committed plenty of bodies forward, but goalkeeper Jamie Jones was not tested once in an insipid final half an hour.

It is to Johnson's credit that he has regularly been willing to make early changes where required, but here the quadruple change seemed to play it's part in a disjointed end to the game.

Replacing Jordan Jones with Lynden Gooch looked well judged, the former well short of his best and the latter bringing some welcome drive.

Grant Leadbitter, too, showed some much-needed poise but too often Sunderland played over him.

Diamond's departure left the Black Cats without their best player through the opening hour and the arrival of Ross Stewart accelerated Sunderland's descent into overly direct play.

Against Charlton, Sunderland's build-up play as they chased an equaliser was good, let down by their delivery once they arrived in the final third.

Here, they failed to produce on either front.

It was Wigan who threatened to extend their lead, Keane twice missing gilt-edged chances to score as the home side enjoyed space on the break.

That was perhaps inevitable, and it was clear too that at the back Sunderland were now struggling.

Wright's lack of match fitness was evident, and Johnson revealed afterwards that Dion Sanderson has been struggling with a back problem of late.

It was a brutal watch, Sunderland's composure deserting them at the crucial moment.

The top two looks a long way off, now and it's the form that Johnson's side had shown over such a long period that made this defeat all the more deflating for supporters on Wearside.

After that defeat at Shrewsbury few would have given the Black Cats much hope of launching a push for the top two.

It was a superb run (amidst a genuine injury crisis in defence) that had completely changed the mood and underlined the sense of a fresh start under Kyril Louis-Dreyfus.

All of that remains true.

On the pitch and off it the Black Cats have started making strides but this 90 minutes was quite the clearly the biggest setback yet for both Johnson and Louis-Dreyfus.

Johnson was measured afterwards, clear that the performance fell short of what was required but eager to stress that he still believes in this group of players.

Their hopes of a stunning surge to the top two now rest on a flawless run in, and favours from elsewhere.

If not, the draining tension of the play-offs awaits once more.

Either way, Sunderland's hopes of reaching the Championship rest on ensuring this was the low point of the run-in, both in terms of performance and result.

It was a woeful evening, and nowhere near good enough for a side with promotion ambitions.

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