Phil Smith's verdict: The positive signs and clear concern for Sunderland as they face up to likely play-off tilt

At Peterborough Aiden O'Brien had been inches away from giving Sunderland's top-two hopes an almighty boost.

Wednesday, 21st April 2021, 1:04 pm

The Black Cats had finished strongly, almost snatching a winner when an attempted clearance dropped onto the post. Moments later, Aiden McGeady burst to the byline, his cross cut out at the very last as O'Brien waited to pounce.

So it was again here.

A deflected cross to the front post with seconds to play, his effort denied only by a strong Matt Ingram save.

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From the following corner, a head that thumped off the crossbar and bounced away, carrying with it any realistic remaining hopes of automatic promotion.

It left Sunderland without a win in five but as at Peterborough and at Blackpool, large elements of the performance had been good.

A winner would not have been undeserved, and yet the margins were so fine that Hull could justifiably have felt hard done by.

In that was ultimately the tale of this automatic promotion challenge. Sunderland have fallen short; just not quite enough.

This draw, an enterprising and open game, offered both promise and concern for what now looks likely to be a play-off tilt.

The Black Cats started strongly, refreshed and dynamic as Lee Johnson moved to put an extra man in midfield.

That seemed to have the dual effect of making his side bolder in their pressing (Josh Scowen in particular was superb in the opening exchanges), while in possession there always seemed to be an extra option. It made Sunderland quicker and more effective when moving the ball. Hull struggled to cope.

It was the first time we had seen this setup since Doncaster Rovers at the start of the long unbeaten run in February. Against a stronger opponent the Black Cats were never likely to run away with the game as they did on that day, but it was notable how much more dynamic they looked on and off the ball.

Johnson had a wry smile when asked afterwards if that opening spell had given him something to think about in terms of his set up moving forward.

The head coach said this would always be his preferred shape, and the shape he will recruit to in the next stage of the club's rebuild this summer (regardless of the division).

He would have liked to have used it more often, but the consistent defensive injuries have prevented it.

This felt like the other story of the night, and the one that offers significant concern.

Twice Sunderland took the lead, and twice they gave it up to the softest of goals.

Down their left flank Johnson has a clear problem. Mallik Wilks is clearly one of the league's best forward players and here was able to prey time and time again on a weakness in the Sunderland set up.

Johnson would not be drawn too much on the detail in the immediate aftermath, saying that all goals are a domino effect and that he would have to watch them again before commenting further.

It is clear though that in this part of the pitch a change is needed.

Johnson's issue has been that he is trying to protect Denver Hume, who missed four months of action with two serious hamstring issues.

The head coach knows how important he will be in the medium term and is determined not to burn him out.

His comments last Friday, when discussing a surprise substitution at Wigan days before, highlight his thinking.

Johnson said: "You're always trying to tick various boxes, and there's some much information to it.

"For example, after how many minutes a player is starting to fatigue. So with Denver, he's had 30 minutes, then 40, then 60 if you like going into that game and physically, he was depleting quite a lot. So there you have a pre-meditated process in terms of potential scenarios and changes you might have to make."

Fortune has again gone against the Black Cats when you consider that Johnson's other option here, Jake Vokins, suffered COVID-19 complications just after delivering by some distance his best performance in a Sunderland shirt at Accrington Stanley.

For both goals, though, allowing the delivery was only half the issue. On both occasions it was far too easy for Josh Magennis to meet the cross from Wilks, soft goals that Sunderland were simply not shipping through that unbeaten run.

Here again, Johnson was sanguine.

He was frustrated and disappointed, but stressed that these goals are probably an inevitability when you are so regularly fielding players out of position. His only established centre-half, Bailey Wright, is clearly struggling with fatigue after being asked to play three games in a week after almost two months on the sidelines.

The concern is that this does not look like changing anytime soon.

Dion Sanderson is facing a spell on the sidelines with a back issue, while Tom Flanagan has endured significant frustration in his attempts to return from a foot problem.

Wright in particular will surely need a rest at some stage in the near future and it now seems certain that Johnson will have to turn to Oliver Younger, who has looked assured when called upon previously.

The fatigue was obvious through large patches of the second half, where Sunderland struggled to build any real spell of possession in the opposition half.

Hull looked a threat, with pace in the forward areas ready to capitalise on the loose passes that for a while felt inevitable.

It was a night when more so than many recent games recently, you could see the blueprint that Sunderland are trying to work to in the long term.

They are not there yet, though.

And in the short term, they have some major challenges that will not be easily solved.

Johnson will have to find answers if a likely play-off campaign is to end in success.

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