Phil Smith's verdict: Inside Sunderland's most frustrating afternoon of campaign yet and what went wrong

Though the focus would quickly switch to the refereeing, Lee Johnson's post-match press conference started with the honest admission that Sunderland had just not done enough.

Sunday, 24th October 2021, 12:00 pm

For all the frustration and bemusement with some of the key decisions, it was an assessment you sense was shared by most of the 33,000 in the Stadium of Light.

Defeat, Johnson also said, was harsh. But there was no doubt that the level of quality that had powered a perfect start to the League One campaign on home turf was missing.

In assessing why that was, there has to be credit for the opposition. To say in the build up that this looked like a bad time to play Charlton Athletic might have looked like a well-worn cliche, but it always felt as if there was going to be a step up from their dire recent form.

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Sunderland felt they should have been awarded a second-half penalty for handball

The gap between the quality of their squad and their position in the table was obvious, and in caretaker manager Johnnie Jackson they not just a club legend but a highly-rated coach who was a key part of that promotion under Lee Bowyer three seasons ago.

That Sunderland would be facing a side with renewed vigour was clear quite literally from the off.

Luke O'Nien paused on the ball barely a second in and was wiped out by Conor Washington as he flew into the press. That he was not yellow carded for a fairly blatant foul from behind would be the start of a long list of frustrations for the home side, and it was also a statement of intent from the visitors.

Jackson had switched to a new system, allowing him to play an extra centre-forward in the hope of disrupting Sunderland's build-up play.

In time, it would work.

That press was also key, and it felt fairly obvious that Jackson had been able to inspire a significant rise in application from his squad.

Some of that was clever management, restoring George Dobson to the base of midfield where he no doubt felt he had a point to prove not just to his former club, but to the manager who had seemingly frozen him out at The Valley.

Johnson afterwards said the lift in performance level left him feeling plenty of sympathy for the departed Adkins, given the performances a similar group had delivered just days earlier.

For Jackson, it was an impressive start to his audition for the permanent job, whch he has been clear that he wants.

As he stood beneath the travelling supporters at the end, soaking up the adulation and raising the decibel levels in the upper tier, you sensed momentum could be quickly gathered.

Initially, Sunderland found openings. After a couple of uncertain moments at the back they spotted the space in behind that press and twice drew decent saves from Craig MacGillivray.

At that stage it was all a little frenetic, Sunderland lacking a touch of composure but ultimately looking threatening.

It took a little whole for Charlton to really gain a foothold but once they were able to, the hosts began to labour a touch.

Key was the pace and counter-attacking ability of Jonathan Leko as the right wing-back, who was able to push Dennis Cirkin back and with him, Aiden McGeady.

Sunderland were seeing the ball far deeper than they would have liked and for half an hour, Johnson felt they had lost their way.

A disconnect within the team, defenders going long under pressure and midfielders ending up too deep for that approach.

The upshot was that too often Ross Stewart was isolated. The Scot actually did superbly through that period, often winning balls he seemingly had little right to. Too often, though, team-mates were so far away that it would end up counting for little.

An injury to Sam Lavelle provided an opportunity to reset, and in the spell before half-time Sunderland produced their best work.

Wingers in dangerous areas, a steady flow of possession allowing the full-backs to find space on the overlap.

When Cirkin crashed an effort off the crossbar after more good play early in the second half, you wondered if the tide was turning.

Not so.

Sunderland were adamant that Jayden Stockley should have been sent off for an alleged headbutt on Tom Flanagan in the first half, and his winning header therefore rubbed salt in the wound.

And though they also felt they should have a handball when Stewart's close-range effort struck Jason Pearce's arm, but across the board they also had no doubt that they had not produced enough quality.

Particularly in the final ten minutes, when the distribution was poor and they allowed their opposition to take time out of the game far too easily, giving away cheap fouls and ceding possession with little structure in their play.

For all his disappointment, Johnson was clear that this was no time for panic.

Sunderland's quality in the final third has been excellent to date, and will improve again once Elliot Embleton is available for selection next weekend.

It was very much an off-day for Aiden McGeady and Aiden O'Brien, but both have proven their positive attributes over a period of time.

The former, it should be noted, has played through the pain barrier once again this week.

Perhaps more concerning is that Sunderland did look a little leggy at times following a demanding schedule, particularly in midfield where that composure and control was missing through large spells of both halves.

Johnson nows that his biggest challenge over the coming weeks and months is to manage his squad through the relentless run of fixtures.

This was perhaps the most frustrating afternoon yet of a so far superb campaign.

No time for panic or overreaction, but that an improvement is needed for a punishing week of difficult fixtures on the road is clear.

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