Phil Smith's verdict: Making sense of Sunderland's Portsmouth disappointment and where Phil Parkinson's side stand
The reaction to Sunderand’s defeat at Portsmouth has been marked by significant disappointment, but from pitch pitch to dugout to stands, there has also been a relative sense of calm.
Without doubt, this was a missed opportunity to make a real statement, as had perhaps been the case when Doncaster Rovers arrived in front of the Sky Sports cameras recently and played out an immensely underwhelming draw.
There has been a recognition of a few key factors, however.
Firstly, there is no tougher fixture than coming to Fratton Park at this level and if anything, the control and power Portsmouth displayed in the second half here only served to underline the exceptional achievement Sunderland managed last time they visited this ground.
That night, with a ferocious atmosphere promised from the side, their remarkable discipline and application in defence almost entirely becalmed the opposition and their supporters.
They were undone, initially at least, by two set pieces and it is that above all else that will frustrate Phil Parkinson.
They had started the game well, in command at the back and getting bodies into advanced areas at the other end.
Luke O’Nien went close with a stunning effort from the edge of the box, and Chris Maguire ought to have done better when Denver Hume got the byline and fired in a low cross in trademark fashion.
Portsmouth had their moments but the early stages of the game had played out exactly as expected, an open, engaging contest between two sides with legitimate designs on automatic promotion.
The difference in the first 50 minutes was set piece delivery.
Maguire, so precise and threatening from dead-ball positions in recent times, had slipped back into some bad habits, his balls into the box lacking precision and consistency.
Ronan Curtis, meanwhile, was causing havoc.
Sunderland had been warned within ten minutes, Ryan Williams flicking his first whipped free kick just wide of the far post.
Williams had been wasteful throughout the contest but Christian Burgess was not going to make the same mistake, and never looked like missing once Curtis had dropped a superb delivery onto the penalty spot.
James Bolton likewise and from a game where there had been little in it, Sunderland feeling one or two refereeing calls should have seen them either level or ahead, they suddenly seemed to be down and out.
Unquestionably, their response from there was poor and that gets to the heart of the matter around this team at the moment.
Just what is their normal level?
Are they the side that so comfortably overpowered Doncaster, Fleetwood and Wycombe, or the side that looked a touch short of ideas and craft both here and against Doncaster?
Defensively they had a poor day, but this has been a pillar of strength of late and there is no reason to think that a much-needed rest this week will allow the likes of Jordan Willis to recapture their best form.
Perhaps more concerning is that attacking output has slowed a little.
MK Dons and Tranmere Rovers were beaten, but the Black Cats are not quite the potent attacking force they looked to be developing into a few weeks ago.
This in a nutshell is Parkinson’s biggest challenge, both this week and beyond.
After a stellar run of form, Lynden Gooch and Chris Maguire have seen their levels drop a touch and though that is understandable given the punishing recent schedule, it’s not a development he can allow to continue.
This game all too often showed the dangers when Sunderland leave their striker isolated with little energy around him.
The ball goes too long, too early, straight back to the opposition and prevents the Black Cats building any momentum.
It was fair, too, to wonder whether Parkinson could have changed things a little quicker when his side so quickly looked so drained in the second period.
What he does have now is competition.
Consistency of selection has been a key part of Sunderland’s recent success but this is a brutal division and it is essential to be able to freshen things up a touch.
To that end, the arrival of Antoine Semenyo and Declan John on deadline day, as well as the energy of Josh Scowen in midfield, will give the manager some welcome dilemmas when Ipswich visit the Stadium of Light next weekend.
The manager knows he needs it.
“I think we’ve done sensible business in terms of the ones we’ve got in,” he said.
“We’ve filled the spaces we wanted to fill and we have the opportunity this week to work with those lads.
“Josh hasn’t trained much, Declan wasn’t available today and Antoine [will benefit] from a week on the training ground.
“It wasn’t ideal for him [coming on when he did] because we’ve had to move him round a couple of times positional wise because of the injury. We’re looking forward to working with him this week.”
This was not an afternoon that will define Sunderland’s season and a handful of crunch games over the next four weeks mean sthat they can quickly recover their momentum.
The reality of their woeful form in the bleak midwinter, however, is that they cannot afford many days like this one.
The challenge for Parkinson is to use those new arrivals to find the right balance between consistency and invention, and above all else to ensure Sunderland don’t slip back into bad attacking habits.