Phil Smith's verdict: The telling change in approach from Sunderland's opponents ahead of a crucial week in the transfer window

Perhaps this past week has offered a more balanced assessment of where this Sunderland side finds itself.

Saturday, 25th January 2020, 3:22 pm

Without a doubt, they are a different proposition to the team that so laboured through the midwinter period, short not just on confidence but seemingly resilience, too.

The last two games have also offered something of a reality check, if only a minor one, from those heady afternoons when Lincoln City and Wycombe Wanderers were swept away in a blur of energetic, incisive football.

This was the second game in which they had looked a little flat, and significantly, less precise, in an underwhelming first-half display.

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Against MK Dons Phil Parkinson had felt they were lacking intensity, and they were certainly opened up too often by a neat opposition midfield.

Here, he felt it was slightly different.

“I just felt that we were almost trying too hard at times,” he said.

“That extra touch, we were a little bit hurried and sometimes when you’re like that you don’t see the picture when the ball comes to you.”

Perhaps more importantly and significantly for the weeks and months ahead, he also noted that Doncaster Rovers has altered their approach to cope with the demands Sunderland have been placing on their opponents at the Stadium of Light in recent weeks.

Parkinson noted that their midfield, both in selection and application, was tighter than in recent weeks and considerably less open.

It was a good move.

Darren Moore is fortunate to call upon talented Arsenal loanee Ben Sheaf and in Ben Whiteman, he has arguably the most accomplished central midfielder at this level.

They were combative but disciplined, quickly moving the ball into space in front of them.

Sunderland’s attacking wing-backs have been a thrill to watch of late but teams will increasingly know that if they can precise in their distribution, there is space to be had on the break.

The Black Cats were perhaps fortunate that for all their tidy play, Doncaster were badly lacking presence in the final third and though they reached the edge of the box with relative ease, thereafter they were poor.

Sunderland’s back three were also typically assured in their work, and it is a major positive that they are so regularly and so confidently keeping oppositions forward quiet.

This was their third clean sheet in a row and though their last two opponents have looked lively in spells, they have not done too much to hurt an imposing backline.

In the early part of the season, their defensive statistics were excellent, much improved from last season when Jon McLaughlin was so regularly their saviour.

The lack of clean sheets were a curious anomaly but the defence is getting its rewards now and it is encouraging because that consistency suggests it is sustainable.

As they had done against MK Dons, Sunderland stepped it up in the second half and though Doncaster were resolute, Parkinson and his side will feel that this was a game they could ultimately have won.

“In the second half, we maintained the same kind of intensity without the ball but relaxed and calmed down with it,” Parkinson said.

“We moved the ball quicker and our decision-making was a lot better.

“But sometimes that happens. They’re an honest group of players and it was just important at half-time that we settled everybody down and we played in the manner that we expect from the lads.”

“I thought some of the football we played was good, even though we didn’t get a goal,” he added.

“In the second half I thought we probably got in enough good positions to win the game.

“But you have to stick the ball in the net to do that.”

An opportunity missed, but another point and another game unbeaten.

Sunderland are in a better position now than anyone could have imagined when they travelled to Doncaster just after Christmas, but there remains a huge amount of work to be done and this game perhaps underlined that.

Sunderland play eight games between now and March 2nd, six of them against teams with genuine designs on the play-off positions and above.

It will be a stern and true test of this side’s promotion mettle and though they are in a good place on the pitch, it is abundantly clear that another injection of quality in the closing week of the transfer window could make all the difference.

Only thirteen players have started a game since Boxing Day, and Grant Leadbitter has seen little action since starting that 0-0 draw with Bolton Wanderers.

That is a clear positive and one of the key reasons why they have been able to play with such growing conviction and fluidity, but it is also fair to suggest that it is probably not sustainable between now and the end of the season.

Parkinson does have options in reserve, with both Duncan Watmore and Kyle Lafferty bringing something different off the bench here.

He has been effusive in his praise for the players who have seen little action of late and offered a positive update on Elliot Embleton post-match, with the talented and creative attackign midfielder only set to be missing for another couple of weeks after an injury setback.

In a few key areas, however, he needs a touch more competition and players capable of replicating this style.

They always are, but these final days of the window feel like big ones for Sunderland.