Phil Smith's verdict: Inside Sunderland's brutal wake-up call and a clear warning from Lee Johnson

It might seem a little lazy to say that this was one of those afternoons where everything went wrong from first minute to last.

Sunday, 3rd October 2021, 12:30 pm

But in this case, it was pretty much true.

The pattern of the game was set in the first passage of play, Sunderland under pressure in their own defensive third.

The wind was swirling, and the standing water on the pitch already visible.

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Facing an aggressive and well coordinated press the Black Cats tried to play their way out of trouble. The ball got stuck, possession was ceded and the home side had an opening.

It would prove to be that way time and time again through a shambolic first half, in which Lee Johnson's side shipped three and were perhaps fortunate the damage was no worse.

The conditions were utterly wretched, but Sunderland knew better than to offer that up as an excuse afterwards.

They knew they had been outplayed and outfought.

'We were really good going into the shallow end', Danny Cowley joked afterwards, but you understood the point he was making, albeit tongue-in-cheek.

They took no risks in their own half, firing dangerous balls into the channel where their forwards and wing-backs quickly put their opponents under pressure.

Sunderland couldn't deal with it, leaving them unable to build any sort of platform from which to get a foothold in the game.

This was a brutal wake-up call, and one that Johnson had warned his side of during the week.

He had been asked two questions along a similar theme, the difference in answers to which was instructive and in the end, perceptive.

The first was on his side's away form, which from a limited sample size of three games had been middling. On that front he had little concern. Sunderland had been beaten at Burton Albion but dominated the game, and at Fleetwood a dismal final ten minutes had marred an otherwise encouraging performance.

He also noted, fairly, that his side had produced three excellent away wins in the Carabao Cup.

But when asked about how he would go about guarding against complacency, the head coach did cede one area of concern.

“Our challenge will be in the winter,” he had said.

"My experience of younger players is they're very good in the summer when the pitches are spot on, the weather is good etc.

"They're not necessarily hardened to that battle in January, February, and so that will be another test for us."

He had perhaps not quite predicted that first major test so soon, but afterwards he conceded that they had fallen well short.

Not that this defeat was just about Sunderland's younger players. Far from it.

There was experience through the spine of the side and yet it did not bring the required composure in the first half, or lead to the necessary adjustment when the visitors were pushed onto the back foot.

It was, Johnson said, a lack of leadership and a lack of savvy, and he included himself in that.

Sunderland's shift in philosophy does not mean playing out from the back at all costs and here he wanted to see his side sense that the best way forward was to try and use their own running power in the channels.

They never really did, and in truth the experience of Aiden McGeady was a significant absence. The Irishman has perhaps not been as influential this season as he was at the turn of the year. but his game awareness is always good and his decision making in possession still excellent.

Also missed, perhaps, was the craft of Dan Neil and Callum Doyle.

That might seem odd, when in many ways this was a game for a more direct style. But part of Sunderland's issue was that their ball-carrying was poor, and their distribution imprecise.

It was an utterly dismal afternoon, and one that will check the optimism on Wearside just a touch.

Gallows humour in the away end is rarely an indicator of good play and the ‘call it off’ chants that rang out from the away end before even an hour was played told you just how bad this was.

This is a challenge Sunderland will face again and if they are to maintain their place in the automatic promotion places, they will have to deal with it significantly better.

This was the club's heaviest defeat since dropping into League One and it was a result that very much reflected the level of performance.

Here's the thing, though.

At the full-time whistle there was little in the way of rage or recrimination in the away end.

Not because this level of performance was acceptable, or because the defeat and the manner of it didn't sting. It absolutely did.

Given the travel involved and the woeful conditions, you can guarantee that for many of the 2,100-strong support this will slot in right near the top of the worst away days on the road with Sunderland.

But the Sunderland side quickly made their way over, both to applaud and apologise.

Johnson himself had two hands raised, noting that this was well short of what was required.

The response was applause and a chorus of 'Sunderland 'Til I Die'. Part of that is the loyalty, and the recognition that you sign up for the good days and the bad.

But part of it was also the recognition that this has been a strong start to the campaign, and that the shift in style and philosophy across the club generally has been a good one.

That generosity was most certainly noted in the Sunderland group, and you could sense in the post-match debrief an acknowledgment that those supporters are owed a performance or two.

This still has the trends of a memorable campaign, but only if the lessons are learned to make this an early-season nadir.

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