Phil Smith's verdict: Making sense of Sunderland's dire defeat - and why Kyril Louis-Dreyfus needs to act fast
The turnaround was astonishing.
Seven days on from the humiliation at Bolton Wanderers, Wearside was ablaze with anticipation and positivity.
Almost 40,000 at the Stadium of Light, here not just to witness the emotional homecoming of Jermain Defoe but also, or at least so they hoped, the start of a new chapter and a surge towards the finishing line this season.
It was another show of faith, the support again digging deep as this third-tier purgatory goes on in the hope of witnessing their club take that final and hardest step.
To say that they were let down was an understatement. The first-half performance in particular was nothing short of a shambles.
Despite the pre-match buzz in the stands Sunderland’s start was tepid, some nice play at times but ultimately not enough bravery in trying to open up a deep-lying defence. It took too long to build the play into the final third and when they did, it was invariably the case that there were only one, maybe two, targets to hit in the box.
Whether through overconfidence or a lack of it, it was pedestrian and it let that energy ebb away.
Doncaster Rovers offered next to nothing, but those defensive vulnerabilities that we have seen time and time again this season returned as a simple (though well-weighted, in fairness to Josh Martin) long ball through the middle of the pitch allowed them to take a priceless lead.
Sunderland’s response was virtually non-existent, and the second just before the break was a fair reflection of the balance of the first half.
After that Sunderland were largely dominant, but in truth that only served to underline the frustration of what had gone before.
Had the Black Cats started the game with anything like the intensity with which they played after the break, then the game would have been a different matter.
Even amidst the time wasting, you could see that when Sunderland built overlaps out wide and got bodies in the box, the visiting defence was creaking.
Worth noting, too, that the failings were not solely in red and white. That the officials could not see that Ross Stewart’s header had dropped over the line midway through the second half was unfathomable. How they managed to come up with four minutes stoppage time after a half of repeated (and understandable) time wasting was just as egregious.
Mike Dodds, the head of Sunderland’s interim management team, fronted up to the local media afterwards and took responsibility for the performance.
Rightly, he had no intention of dwelling on that disallowed goal, saying what his side had produced not just on Saturday but in the games previous, was ‘unacceptable’.
Though he said that he did not think the two goals conceded owed much to the shape which he had selected for the game, he admitted he would have to reflect on those selection decisions.
The decision to go with a back three, he said, was a response to the way Bolton Wanderers had so easily exposed the team a week previous.
The issue was that with Carl Winchester in a very unorthodox role on the right of the back three, there remained uncertainty when Doncaster went direct and so while not looking particularly more secure, Sunderland were also left short of threat in wide areas at the other end of the pitch.
Switching to a more orthodox system at the break (and Dodds said the capacity to do this easily was a factor in picking Winchester where they did) made a belated impact, but it should have come earlier. And the way with which Jack Clarke immediately added impetus and dynamism from the moment of his 62nd-minute substitution suggested the substitutions should have come earlier, too.
There was contrition from Dodds, who spoke of his regret in letting down the ‘magnificent support’, and the pride in representing the badge on his tracksuit.
This was a visibly bruising experience, but any analysis of this defeat has to go far beyond dugout indecision.
How did we get here?
For one, to end up with a pitch in this state. Sunderland have talented, technical footballers and while yes, they are better than recent performances, it is clear that they have no confidence in being able to receive the ball and move it quickly. Sunderland now look caught between their natural instinct to play out from the back, which is borderline impossible, and going forward early. The problem there is that they don’t have a squad of players even remotely suited to that style, and so often it leaves an isolated Stewart fighting lost causes.
The word is that there will be significant treatment for the turf before the next home game, but so much damage has already been done.
Sunderland’s home record this season had been the backbone of their top-two tilt, but the two most recent defeats could prove key in the final reckoning.
And for all the good work done on deadline day, there are defensive issues in this squad and the surprise back-five named underlined it.
Dennis Cirkin is one of many players who looks badly short on confidence, but in not replacing Denver Hume there is currently no alternative.
At centre-back, Bailey Wright is set to return soon but the lack of depth is clear.
There were echoes in this defeat of a similarly damaging week in the aftermath of Phil Parkinson’s departure. Then, as there was here, the sense was that against Burton Albion and Wigan Athletic sides labouring in the table, the squad in place should be able to find a way through.
They looked to be sorely lacking leadership then, too, as they took just one point from the two games. Lee Johnson was appointed hours before the Wigan defeat, but with no time to make any significant impact.
Dodds, it should be remembered, was brought to the club as a development coach (and a fine one at that, just ask the Bellingham family) and had already been promoted once when asked to step in for the U23 side following Elliott Dickman’s departure.
It was a surprise then, to see Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman say before the game that the club were still finalising their shortlist for the vacant head coach position.
There was of course an element of expectation management here, particularly as enthusiasm and excitement grows that Roy Keane could be tempted into making a return to the club.
He also added, though, that contract lengths had not even been discussed in depth with the current candidates.
Doing the necessary due diligence is of course the right approach, but it jars with the assessment that the change was made primarily with the goal of promotion this season in mind.
One game has already ticked by, and only 16 remain.
The timeframe for a new head coach to make an impact was already tight in the extreme, and it is narrowing by the day.
If Sunderland do not bounce back quickly this week, then their prospects of making it to the top two, which already look remote, will be all but gone.
Even by Sunderland’s standards it has been a week of high drama and frenzy.
Kyril Louis-Dreyfus has made some of the biggest calls of his tenure and saw first-hand the need for a rapid improvement in defensive structure and leadership.
You have to wonder what Keane would have made of this, were he watching. One thing is for sure, his bargaining position has grown considerably stronger.
“Just as important, the contract has to be right,” he’d said on Friday night before that wry smirk.
“Everything’s got to be right,” Ian Wright added.
“It can’t just be, it’s Roy Keane, he’s going to save Sunderland. Everything has to be right upstairs.”
Quite. A crucial few days lies ahead.