Phil Smith's verdict: Sunderland's alarming second-half showing leaves fans pondering familiar fears

There was a period where Sunderland looked like the side with the numerical advantage, but it was alarmingly brief.

Wednesday, 24th November 2021, 12:00 pm

For five or so minutes in the second half they created a string of chances, finding space and looking dangerous every time they advanced towards the final third.

Alex Pritchard crossed for Ross Stewart, who headed just wide, before seeing an effort of his own deflected just past the far post.

Lynden Gooch flashed an effort just wide from the opposite side of the box, and Luke O’Nien headed wide from a good position near the penalty spot.

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Dan Udoh's scores Shrewsbury's equaliser

That, though, was pretty much it.

Shrewsbury Town were level within ten minutes and it would be remiss not to say that it was well earned.

Despite David Davis being sent off just before the break, they came out with purpose and found gaps when they broke forward.

Dan Udoh’s strike was a fine one, but came at the end of a spell of pressure that the Black Cats struggled to deal with.

What came after that was even more alarming.

Shrewsbury, it should be noted, had played for 70 minutes with ten men just three days previous.

To compound that, the intervening period had seen them lose three of their senior defenders to injury.

Though their home form has been decent, they had come into the game on the edge of the relegation zone and in trouble. A side with serious designs on automatic promotion should have shown their ruthless streak here.

Sunderland had not been entirely convincing in beating Ipswich Town on Saturday afternoon, but the response to that had been broadly been understandably positive.

The Black Cats had ended their woeful run of form, having dug in against good opposition.

It was a platform to build on, the hope being that some confidence and fluidity would return from there.

At half time, they had everything in their favour.

The lead was earned, just about.

It had been a smart call to deploy Pritchard off the left flank, Sunderland recognising that Shrewsbury’s 3-5-2 system would leave space in between the wing back and the centre back.

Pritchard constantly picked up the ball in that pocket of space, with two centre forwards to hit in the box.

In the end he went it alone in the 16th minute, driving infield and curling a superb effort into the far corner.

Johnson’s side were far from dominant, their lack of full backs exposed at times. Shrewsbury were not sitting in, and there were times when Sunderland were struggling to deal with the running power of their opponents in the wide areas.

That Nathanael Ogbeta’s repeated drives towards the box from the left did not deliver a goal at some stage was a matter of fortune for the visitors.

They had offered a threat of their own, though, and only a superb Marko Marosi save had prevented Lynden Gooch from adding a second.

Sunderland had done the hard work in the game, or at least they should have done.

Against ten they failed to build any real spell of pressure.

Shrewsbury looked comfortable defending in numbers and found it far too easy to get up the pitch and buy time when they won the ball back.

Sunderland were lacking cohesion, composure and quality.

In his post-match assessment Johnson laid the blame primarily at a lack of end product from the wide areas, with too many crosses missing their target.

His side had, alarmingly, produced just two shots on target in the 45 minutes that they played against ten men.

Though they spent the last ten minutes in control of possession and territory, Shrewsbury were rarely stretched.

Aiden McGeady and Leon Dajaku were brought on but neither offered much, the former visibly struggling after taking what looked like yet another whack on the top of his foot.

Rather than dealing with Sunderland’s disjointed look, the changes only added to the problems.

The Black Cats boss was despondent afterwards, and said he had made clear in the dressing room his disappointment with the opportunity missed.

He also said that it was not ‘crazy gloom and doom’.

Which was fair, to an extent.

Sunderland remain in the play-off places, five points off second with two games in hand. And, as he said, a win against Cambridge United would leave the points haul from this week of games looking relatively strong.

The issue for Sunderland supporters is that they feel this holding pattern is all too familiar.

This is the club’s fourth campaign at League One level and for so much of it, the situation has been similar to this.

Sunderland not far off, but not ruthless enough, not quite good enough to capitalise on opportunities that present themselves.

Perhaps most significantly, three-and-a-bit seasons at this level have shown that if performances are laboured, the results will catch up with you eventually.

The brutal truth is that for the last month or so, this Sunderland side has been deeply unconvincing in its level, at least against the standard of a side whose aim is to push for automatic promotion.

The injuries at full back have clearly not helped, Sunderland too often looking disjointed when earlier in the season the game plan looked clearer, the play so much sharper.

That they need a win at Cambridge United on Saturday is obvious.

But soon enough they also need to show a marked improvement in their all-round game.

There has been much to praise on and off the pitch to the direction taken in the last six months or so, but too many of the recent performances have been painfully familiar.

This was an alarming 45 minutes, lacking cohesion, fluidity and quality.

Rapid improvements are needed.

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