Phil Smith's verdict: Making sense of Sunderland's crucial win and where they stand right now

It was a put to Phil Parkinson in his post-match press conference that it was a case of three valuable points from a gruelling night.

Wednesday, 4th November 2020, 12:41 pm
Updated Wednesday, 4th November 2020, 12:41 pm

Parkinson agreed with the first part, if not quite the second.

It's a debate we're used to having, when Sunderland win a League One game and the margins are tight.

Winning when not at your best is, without doubt, a trademark of any side that goes on to win automatic promotion. Yet play on the margins and the risk is that over time, it will catch up with you.

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Sunderland secured three crucial points against Ipswich Town at the Stadium of Light

After two frustrating failures to secure promotion from the third tier, there will always be an element of concern when Sunderland are not commanding. It is as understandable as it is inevitable.

Parkinson conceded, absolutely, that the Black Cats had not been at their best here.

In the first half, they had kept Ipswich at arm's length but did not press home an early advantage cost them dearly.

The Black Cats had one or two 'moments' in the aftermath of Charlie Wyke's well-taken opener, but a couple of half chances was all they had to show for a good level of control over the contest.

Parkinson's frustration was that his side had been caught in two minds when it came to their pressing game. He felt they had made it too easy for the visitors to progress through midfield and play up to the final third.

In truth, Paul Lambert's side had done little with it. A lot of their possession was through their two centre-backs and in truth, they didn't look hugely comfortable with it.

It made for a strange dynamic in which Sunderland looked in control, but without pressing home the advantage they had built.

Parkinson's post-match remarks suggested he felt that while against the run of play to an extent, Jack Lankester's equaliser punished the Black Cats for that indecision in their pressing game.

At half-time he switched it up, pushing Lynden Gooch further forward in an attempt to stop the opposition at source.

The effect was to break the game open somewhat, pushing Sunderland further up the pitch but also giving the opposition more room in which to play.

It was a tense, tight contest in which possession was turned over rapidly and both sides seemed just a touch more precision away from edging ahead. Sunderland were more threatening on the ball and a little looser off it.

The visitors looked dangerous when they broke from midfield, with Teddy Bishop in particular showing an excellent ability to dribble away from his marker in possession.

They should have scored when Lankester was presented with an even better opportunity in the box, firing over the bar after a quick counter.

At that stage, there was very little between the two teams.

Just as had been the case on Saturday, two key moments turned the contest in Sunderland's favour.

The decisions were certainly more debatable than those we had seen at Gillingham, with widespread surprise when the referee opted to show a red card to Andre Dozzell.

His challenge on Grant Leadbitter was firm, but Peter Wright had judged the game loosely up until that point, opting not to show any yellow cards when there had been plenty of cause to do so for both sides.

Ipswich felt Dozzell had been pushed in the build up to the challenge, regardless.

For the penalty there was clear contact with the arm of Mark McGuinness, but confusion persists about the interpretation of the handball laws after some high-profile decisions in the Premier League earlier this season.

What we can say for certain is that if more games are to be settled from the penalty spot this season, the Black Cats are well placed.

Grant Leadbitter took his effort superbly, just as Chris Maguire had done on Saturday.

That, bar one or two late surges forward from Bishop, was that.

A tight contest tilted in Sunderland's favour.

Parkinson noted room to improve, but added quite fairly that these games between the teams at the top are always likely to be tight.

He also, quite rightly, added that the ten-game mark is normally a reasonable time to take stock of where a side is.

21 points from ten games is a very good return, particularly when this was a fixture list that looked set to offer some significant challenges.

Sunderland have already played four of the six teams around them at the top.

Two of those games have been tight, in which they beat Peterborough United and Ipswich Town.

In one, against Portsmouth, they were comprehensively outplayed.

In the other, they were much the better side at Charlton Athletic and could consider themselves unlucky not to take all three points.

Their return at this stage is the best they have produced yet since dropping into League One, and a tally of six clean sheets bodes well when the statistics suggest that is an entirely fair reflection of their defensive efforts in the main.

It is further forward where some concerns linger, even as Charlie Wyke deserves praise for his surge in form after what Parkinson bluntly described as a 'slow start' to the campaign.

A win here with two shots on target reflected a ruthless display if not a commanding one.

WIthout doubt, Sunderland find themselves strongly placed in the table.

The club, though, must accept that the previous two years means there will be a tension and anxiety that accompanies this campaign.

We have seen more than enough to state with confidence that Sunderland will be near the top.

The organisation is good, the work ethic excellent.

The chance creation has been decent in patches, and the finishing remains a work in progress.

The omens are good, if not defintive.

This vital win in a crucial game over a near rival, then, felt a fair reflection of where this team stands after ten broadly encouraging games.

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