Phil Smith's verdict: Inside Sunderland's brutal defeat, what needs to change and what doesn't

'We want six, we want six', rang round the New York Stadium.

Sunday, 31st October 2021, 12:16 pm

'We want six, we want six', rang round the New York Stadium.

There are bad days, and then there are days like these.

Death by a thousand crosses (seventeen, to be precise), Sunderland unable to even come close to laying a glove on an impressive Rotherham United side.

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The clock was ticking agonisingly slowly, the only question being just how severe the eventual damage would be.

Paul Warne's side found space in the channel with ease, and in the heart of the penalty box the resistance was even meeker.

Those on the pitch had been left an impossible task by Aiden McGeady's inexplicable red card, but no one could or would pretend it did much to change the direction of travel.

Lee Johnson said his side has been laissez-faire from the first action.

Aiden McGeady is shown a red card in the second half of Sunderland's heavy defeat

Lazy, leggy, everywhere the ball had just been. 'How far do you want me to go as to how poor we were,' he asked?

This was well over an hour after the final whistle, as the players finally began to trickle out from what had been a long and searching inquest.

It was, Johnson said, direct but constructive.

"It was all said and it was all taken on board, to be fair," he said.

"We genuinely want the best for these lads. I've not got one personality clash, either in the playing staff or the coaching staff.

"Everybody is looking for their mate to be extremely successful, so we have to use this as a line in the sand."

One of the frustrations for Johnson was that nothing his side had faced came as a surprise.

He had spoken through the week of Rotherham's hugely impressive performance data, which underlined their strength in creating significant goal scoring chances.

He had warned that they would look to exploit Sunderland's youth, that this would be a physical battle and that his side would have to stand up for it.

They didn't.

They lost battles, were pulled out of shape too easily. Most frustratingly, they were erratic in possession and gave away countless set-piece opportunities.

They were the most obliging of opponents.

Johnson took 'total responsibility', an admission that the side he had picked proved not fit for purpose.

That Rotherham's threat comes in no small part from their ultra-attacking wing backs is well known. To select Leon Dajaku and Aiden McGeady in the wide areas felt like an admirable attempt to disrupt Rotherham, a refusal to let Warne's side have the game on their own terms.

The end result was that Sunderland's structure off the ball was poor, the full backs brutally exposed as midfielders and centre forwards pulled into the channel and all-too-often were not tracked.

In the rare moments Dajaku found himself in space to hurt the opposition, his composure eluded him.

The game would have been done by the break, were it not for Ross Stewart's excellence. On an utterly wretched afternoon, his stock rose further.

It's hard to make too rational an assessment of the half-time changes, given McGeady's implosion, but the switch to a back three failed to change the rhythm of the game and most worryingly, did little to bolster Sunderland's defensive weakness.

Rotherham exposed a vulnerability in the current set up, and Johnson was in no mood to disguise it.

Sunderland's losses feel like 'capitulations', he conceded, and too often they are not looking fit for purpose when the game becomes a battle.

It is something he has warned of, even when the form was just about flawless and even before the first major bump in the road at Portsmouth.

That the true test for his young squad would be when conditions begin to worsen, when summer disappears into the rear view mirror and winter draws in.

Thus far his concern has been well-founded.

It explains, too, why perspective is needed even in the aftermath of this brutal afternoon and why for the most part his reaction was fairly measured.

Sunderland, it should be remembered, are fielding some players with just a handful of senior appearances under their belt.

If, for example, Callum Doyle and Dennis Cirkin look a little exposed in games like this, it's because it is a challenge not like anything they have faced so far in their careers.

This is the decision the club have made and for the most part, it has been a refreshing one.

They have, alongside the likes of Dan Neil, Elliot Embleton and in brief spells Niall Huggins, for the most part shown a fearlessness in possession that has produced a significant increase in the quality of football and, it should not be forgotten, generally excellent form.

Sunderland for the first time in recent memory have a squad with room to grow, assets with resale value who can pivot the club towards a more sustainable future.

It's the reason why, for example, they can go to QPR, a side with genuine Championship promotion aspirations, and compete with the step up in spped and technical quality.

If it seems odd that Sunderland can produce two performances of such stark contrast in a matter of days, then it speaks to the fact that where the Black Cats want to be in time can clash against the reality of what they will sometimes face now.

And here is the tension that was always going to emerge at some point in this campaign.

Sunderland under Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and Kristjaan Speakman have pivoted to an entirely new model, reasoning that only by making the right decisions for the long term will short-term success be achieved.

It's an admirable strategy, and one almost universally welcomed on Wearside.

One that also has already yielded results, too. In signing young players of high technical ability Sunderland's home performances, for example, have stepped up a level.

The truth is also that for these players to develop and reach their full potential, setbacks are not just inevitable but necessary. If they didn’t need this exposure, these steep learning curves, they would not be here.

Time, though, is a relatively precious commodity when you are club of this magnitude in a form of purgatory, a fourth consecutive season at a level that was for the vast majority of your history not even on your radar.

Johnson knows this is his next big major task, to make the adjustments he needs to manage that long-term development with better showings in games like this.

He was abundantly clear afterwards that this was a 'line in the sand' game.

There will be adaptations, now, and it may come at the cost of some of that free-flowing football.

A more traditional midfield three, as we saw at QPR in midweek, would be one obvious avenue and more discipline in the wide areas is an absolute must.

January too, will be important, given the schedule challenges cup success has thrown up and the fact that in these disappointing defeats, it has been senior players as guilty as anyone of not stepping up to the mark.

One or two solid additions looks increasingly important.

There were many damning statistics to reflect on but it was notable, Johnson said, that Sunderland's final-third entries were 'horrendous'.

That he said, was not tactical. It was a reflection of the fact that Sunderland did not earn the right to play.

It's not often we've said that.

Rotherham's excellence here was a reminder of just what a competitive league this will be this season, arguably the toughest since Sunderland dropped to the lebel.

That they remain at two-points-per-game shows the prospect of a memorable campaign is real.

It would be remiss all the same to say there is no need for soul searching when there quite clearly is. This youthful squad is facing its toughest test yet, and in these contests something has to give.

They do not need to rip up the philosophy, not a bit of it. One of their biggest issues here, in fact, was less the commitment to play out of trouble but the dismal execution of it. Sunderland’s one goal was excellent, and showed how sometimes playing through the frenzy is the best way.

But while Sunderland’s long-term future looks brighter than it has for a whole, it may just be that some key tweaks are needed, an occasional middle road in the journey towards the bigger picture.

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