Phil Smith's verdict: Inside the flat and costly afternoon that highlighted the clear need for transfer additions at Sunderland

It is quite remarkable to think that in the 96th minute of Sunderland's clash at Wycombe Wanderers last Saturday, the Black Cats were heading seven points clear of their promotion rivals.

By Phil Smith
Sunday, 16th January 2022, 12:00 pm

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By 5pm a week later, they had been overtaken.

Though the intensity and quality of Sunderland' s attacking play in that second half had raised optimism on Wearside for the campaign ahead, it has ultimately proven to be a costly week.

The Black Cats are still right in the automatic promotion hunt, for sure.

Accrington Stanley score a late equaliser at the Wham Stadium

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But though they still sit second in the table, this was two points dropped and there can now be no doubt that the advantage in the race for the top-two lies elsewhere.

The frustration here, and it was bitter, was that it was almost entirely self-inflicted.

An entirely convincing performance this was not, but as the game headed into the last ten minutes the hard work had been done.

There was an element of fortune in their opening goal as Aiden O'Brien's effort took a wicked deflection to beat the otherwise very impressive Toby Savin, but it had been a proactive substitution from Lee Johnson at the break that had changed the tempo of the game and asked the hosts a different question.

And though the hosts were left frustrated by the yellow card shown to Ross Sykes for dissent when they should have been awarded a corner, there were no such complaints about the second. It was excellent centre-forward play from Ross Stewart, the second time he had drawn a foul from Sykes.

It was an advantage they had to toil for, making the manner in which they gifted it up all the more disappointing.

For the second game in a row, Sunderland's own corner turned into an opposition goal in a matter of seconds. At least on Tuesday night you could offer up in slight mitigation that the Black Cats were a man down and chasing an equaliser, perhaps explaining at least in part their loose defensive structure.

Here there was no such context.

It was naivety in the extreme, a failing that went beyond the undoubtedly costly individual error in trying to cut out Savin's kick downfield.

Despite the importance of holding on their lead the Black Cats left themselves exposed to the break.

It is the second time this season they have dropped two points when not just a goal to the good but a player to the good, too.

As at Shrewsbury Town, what should have been an important away win ended with ground lost.

Given that this is one of the most competitive League One divisions in recent memory, those four points could prove to be crucial.

Johnson's post-match message was blunt: It can't happen again.

The changes to the squad over the summer were extensive and the average age hauled down, so it is fair to point out as Johnson did that leadership and communication are qualities still developing across the squad.

Sunderland's approach of investing in young talent rather than battle-hardened League One players would always prove costly at some stage, the hope being that the rise in attacking threat and long-term benefits to the club of developing assets would offset it.

For all that, though, there is more than enough experience across the park to snuff out lapses like these, and a more ruthless edge is a must if Sunderland are going to get over the line come the end of the season.

With Frederik Alves recalled by West Ham United on Friday, the need for a defensive addition was already pressing.

Though there have been spells of good performances across the campaign, it is clear that the defensive platform needs strengthening.

Though Johnson said that it was a 'professional performance' from his side, it was also true that there was a flatness to their display during the first half in particular.Stewart nearly gave his side the lead with a header that was superbly saved by Savin just five minutes in, but thereafter they created little of note.

The pressing lacked the sharpness of that encouraging unbeaten run, too easy for Accrington to build their way into the game and make the most of their powerful target man in Colby Bishop.

Few would argue with John Coleman's assessment that his side had the better of that first half and though there were some encouraging pockets of play from the visitors, the lack of options that Johnson has had in recent times looked to have caught up with the squad.

Nothing summed that up better than the head coach being forced to select Alex Pritchard for a second game in a row when he is clearly well short of full fitness.

As they laboured in search of a winner in the closing moments without any real incision, no further substitutions were made.

Johnson will hope that a significant slow now in the number of midweek matches will help freshen up his squad, with Carl Winchester and Corry Evans likely to be

back in action for the visit of Portsmouth. It will help, too, that those who recently tested positive for COVID-19 will now get a full week on the training pitch to get back up to speed.

That may help Sunderland rediscover that rhythm, but it is clear that breakthroughs in the transfer market are needed if the kind of form that can now edge them into the top two is to be built and then sustained.

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