Phil Smith's verdict: Making sense of Sunderland's late disappointment and the positives that still emerged

Defend a one-goal lead with five minutes of stoppage time, and there will invariably be a moment for the opposition.

Sunday, 19th September 2021, 12:00 pm

It looked like Sunderland had survived it.

A corner to the heart of the box, a superb leap by Ged Garner and an even better header. It demanded a save every bit its equal, Thorben Hoffmann flying to his left to claw clear. Even then, Corry Evans had to make another block on the line as Sunderland finally cleared their lines.

You thought then another crucial three points might just be secured.

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Sunderland remonstrate after the late penalty award

It would have been a significant moment, too.

This ground has not been one where fond memories are forged for Sunderland. Around a year ago Phil Parkinson's tenure came to an end here with a tepid 1-1 draw, Sunderland direct, uninspiring and extending their then winless streak to five.

Four games here had come and gone without victory in three seasons.

So to draw, having been 2-0 up with just over ten minutes to play, was undoubtedly a setback.

Lee Johnson had fumed with the referee afterwards, labelling his decision to penalise Bailey Wright for a shirt pull on Callum Morton as a 'shambles'.

It was a fairly innocuous passage of play inside the box, the surprise at his decision surpassing that when Harrison Biggins was judged to have fouled Luke O'Nien in the box fifteen minutes earlier.

Johnson said he would be keeping a keen eye on the referee's upcoming games, saying that he had set a 'ridiculous' precedent with his late call.

That there was contact between the two players, Johnson did not deny. But, he argued, it was the kind you see between striker and defender at every single cross, and every single set play.

If there was sympathy with his side for that blow, then it was notable and more significant for the season ahead that this was no attempt at deflection.

Sunderland were the architects of their own downfall to a significant extent and it was here that the head coach warned there are lessons that must quickly be learned.

Regardless of individual opinions on the penalty, what was unquestionable was that Sunderland had invited Fleetwood back into the contest at the worst possible time.

Aiden McGeady's penalty should have been the last meaningful action of the game, but within moments naive defending had allowed Callum Morton to run through on goal and get Fleetwood back into the game.

Sunderland had been warned, too. It was a run Morton had made on a number of occasions through the half, and it was slack in the extreme at a crucial moment.

It was also another example as to why Johnson has continuously stressed the need for Sunderland to finish games off when they are on top.

You are always, he says, vulnerable either to a moment of magic from your opponent or a questionable call from the referee.

It was for that reason that Morton's goal angered him almost as much as Garner's late penalty, giving up the two-goal lead that is so valuable.

This was far from the first time Sunderland have found themselves defending a narrow lead late on, and perhaps that simply caught up with them on this occasion.

Johnson's habit of introducing an extra centre-back has come under fire from some supporters, who feel it invites unnecessary pressure. In fairness, it had previously been a successful one and even here, substitute Frederik Alves made a couple of crucial headers before the penalty award.

Johnson's argument, not without justification, would be that Sunderland need to ensure they are not giving their opponent a window of opportunity heading into those closing stages.

When they do, he needs to react accordingly.

He is still frustrated by a lack of ruthlessness, particularly on the counter.

"Listen, there was a lot of nice stuff," he said.

"I obviously know what we work on in training, so I see it happening every two or three passes, the movement, the interchange.

"At times, I thought we were a bit sloppy in the first half.

"Even in the second half, there were times where the final ball was there to go and execute, but that happens. As a general rule, we’ve played okay."

Even allowing for the late disappointment, this was another encouraging Sunderland performance that leaves you optimistic about the long-term direction of travel.

In the first half Fleetwood had something of a threat from set plays but it was the Black Cats who controlled possession and from open play created by far the better of the chances.

Simon Grayson was forced into a change at the break, switching to a back four and bringing on the experienced Joe Garner to try and get a foothold up front.

Sunderland had looked composed and confident, and arguably should have had more to show for their efforts.

As a collective they still look broadly in good order, and individually there were some notable displays that bode well for the weeks ahead.

After a difficult debut Thorben Hoffmann excelled here, confident in his command of his box and with a number of impressive reflex saves.

Even more impressive was Dennis Cirkin. COVID-19 affected his pre-season but with every game he grows in stature and this was his best yet. A solid defender, his decision-making belies his years and there are signs that he is finding his feet in an attacking sense, too.

Still sitting above the two points-per-game marker, the mood on Wearside remains upbeat even despite this disappointment.

This Sunderland are a young side, and setbacks are inevitable.

Key is the response, and maintaining the encouraging aspects of their play that were still on show in abundance here.

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