Phil Smith's verdict: Inside Sunderland's crucial win and the one major concern that followed

Lee Johnson admitted that come Saturday night, he’d most likely be pouring out a whisky and diet coke.

Sunday, 21st November 2021, 12:41 pm

The toast would not be to a display of champagne football, for there was no denying that this was not that.

“It wasn’t Ajax or Barcelona in their heyday,” the Sunderland head coach had admitted.

For himself and the project, though, this was just about the most significant win of the season.

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Luke O'Nien heads Sunderland into the lead on Saturday afternoon

Recent results had been woeful, performances even worse, and this game looked like a potential pressure point.

Lose, and alarm bells would have been ringing loud and clear.

But the strange dynamic at play was that Sunderland’s early season-form was so good, that three points would put them right back in the automatic promotion race.

All of a sudden, they have two challenging away games, but against sides currently in the bottom half of the division.

After that, four games on home turf where their average points-per-game is unrivalled.

Johnson has given himself and his side a real chance of turning that dreadful form into something altogether more positive.

He had been asked recently about his reputation for ‘streaky’ runs, and as part of an extensive riposte had added that you could also look to the positive, that maybe a strong one was just around the corner.

He knew he needed it, and he knew it needed to start here.

Johnson is a process-driven coach, who also puts a lot of belief in the value of data analysis.

Part of that means being objective about performance levels, looking beyond the result when making judgements.

So there will be no triumphalism in the aftermath of a win, or a sense that this team’s problems have been solved all at once.

Ipswich had controlled possession throughout the game, and looked for the most part like the in-form, upwardly-mobile side that they are.

Johnson had anticipated that through the excellent midfield pairing of Sam Morsy and Lee Evans, there would be spells where they dominated the ball.

His game plan was that with Nathan Broadhead playing alongside Ross Stewart, Sunderland could forge openings with their pressing. And that when they won it back, a quick ball forward could leave Paul Cook’s side exposed.

There were times when you could see it, quick balls fired into the channels that left the full backs a little exposed.

But too often the next stage was poor, and too often that initial pass was misplaced.

That Johnson changed his shape back to a 4-2-3-1 midway through the first half, with Broadhead moving out to the left wing, was a recognition that it was not working.

It did improve his side’s play in possession, and they began to find some rhythm as Dan Neil finally began to see the ball in dangerous areas.

It was still Ipswich forging the defining chances, though.

And perhaps the defining moment of the game came just after the half hour mark, when Thorben Hoffmann twice denied Bersant Celina from close range.

The Kosovan should have beaten the German earlier in the half, and a goal here could have changed the shape of the game entirely.

Cook certainly felt afterwards that was the case, saying that the Black Cats would not have been able to sit in as they did for spells in the second half were they chasing a deficit.

The Ipswich boss candidly admitted that for all his side’s possession in that second half, they did not create anywhere near enough.

That was some double save from Hoffmann, but afterwards he just about untested.

So too was Christian Walton.

With five minutes to play Sunderland were without a shot on target and it looked certain that these two sides were cancelling each other out.

Cook said if you’d told him then his side would lose 2-0, he’d have fallen over.

Johnson and his side got the break(s) they needed.

A good corner, but a poor decision from Walton to come off his line.

A good header from Luke O’Nien, and then in stoppage time a penalty award for a ‘handball’ so dubious that even Johnson admitted it was harsh.

That Sunderland will need to find more fluency in their game and improvement from a number of their attacking players is obvious.

But they have a foothold from which to build now, and Johnson was right to praise the resilience of his side.

Callum Doyle, for example, battled well after a tough run of games before the international break.

O’Nien had been forced to drop back into full back alongside him and even before his goal had done well. On the other flank, Carl Winchester delivered an excellent performance given the calibre of his opponent, Kyle Edwards.

Johnson had made the big call of bringing Bailey Wright in ahead of Tom Flanagan, and was rewarded with a good display and a couple of crucial blocks.

Sunderland have rightly been accused of not being strong enough of late, so in seeing this win through you could understand why Johnson felt it was, in its own way, one of the best performances of the season.

Injury, though, means the positivity was somewhat checked.

The head coach revealed afterwards that Dennis Cirkin needs surgery for a hernia problem, leaving him without a senior full back until the new year.

With O’Nien continuing to suffer with a shoulder problem, he is having to weigh up the prospect of signing a free agent, or shifting to a back three.

It is a relentless schedule between now and the January window opening, and maintaining results and performance levels with so few options in a key area of the pitch will present a significant challenge.

Johnson admitted that there could be times when his side look a little ‘disjointed’.

The setback only served to underline the potential jeopardy of this game, and the importance of the three points.

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