Phil Smith's verdict: The significant Sunderland performances that left a bullish Lee Johnson with welcome headaches

There were signs of what was to come in the opening fifteen minutes.

Sunday, 2nd May 2021, 12:00 pm
Updated Sunday, 2nd May 2021, 12:05 pm

Occasions where Jordan Jones and Jack Diamond found space, pushing Plymouth Argyle back towards their own goal.

All the same, there was some sluggishness in other areas of their performance and with Charlie Wyke and Aiden McGeady both missing through injury, recent form left you inevitably wondering whether it could prove to be another one of those afternoons.

There was certainly concern in the dugout.

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Just minutes after Johnson had urged his side to 'get on the ball, get going', his midfield was again caught in possession near their own box.

The response was apopletic, Jamie McAllister joing in for good measure.

Switch on, Sunderland were told (amongst other things).

That Johnson stood pitchside and looked ahead to a play-off campaign with genuine relish told you that he would go on to get exactly the kind of response he was looking for.

Always taking his cue from performance rather than result, the head coach justifiably reflected on a job very well done.

His side had played with a freshness and genuine personality in forward areas. A spike in their attacking output followed as a result, three goals backed up a raft of shots and dangerous breaks that could and perhaps should have yielded even more.

Sunderland were led by Lynden Gooch, who broke the game open with a quite superb pass to spring Ross Stewart free.

Stewart took his goal well and made that kind of dangerous run time and time again.

Gooch's versatility has long been an asset for Sunderland but the downside for the talented 25-year-old is that it is severely limited his opportunities in this position, the one that he would say is his favourite.

His preference has always been to play through the middle, as close to the striker and the goal as possible.

He took his chance and then some here. He pressed well, spun away from his marker with regularity, and combined neatly with Stewart on the occasions where the 24-year-old played with back to goal.

With Jack Diamond and Jordan Jones carrying the ball from deep, Sunderland had the kind of counter-attacking threat that has too often been absent in their recent winless run.

Johnson will have been pleased, too, that the response to Plymouth's equaliser was strong.

It was a soft goal to give up, Johnson firm in saying afterwards that his side simply have to snuff out this kind of weak defending, but in the closing stages they poured forward and always looked likely to extend their lead.

A red card to Jerome Opoku moments after that equaliser helped their cause, without a doubt, but it's also worth noting that the sheer weight of fouls Sunderland's powerful running drew meant that it was much down to their threat as it was poor decision making on Plymouth's part.

Gooch moved out to the right and surged back into the contest, while Chris Maguire produced an intelligent cameo as he picked up good positions in central areas.

Plymouth's woeful recent form is a clear caveat and at times it wasn't hard to see why their form has so slumped in recent weeks.

They played into Sunderland's hands on so many occasions, trying to beat the aggressive press by playing out from the back in dangerous areas.

Off the ball, their high line was perfect for Stewart, who revelled in having more space than he has probably every enjoyed in a red-and-white shirt to date.

It was hard to imagine any play-off game as open as this, in which Sunderland's forward line have as much as freedom to demonstrate their individual quality.

It was this kind of game that Johnson's side perhaps needed all the same.

In recent weeks he has talked often of playing with more personality, urging his side to have a swagger. In his front four at Home Park he certainly had that, even if a touch more composure in the final ball would have produced an even more emphatic result.

That personality was also brought by Maguire in abundance.

This was a timely not to Johnson ahead of the play-off campaign, and the head coach was tellingly effusive in his praise for the attacking midfielder as he reflected on the game.

Johnson has always insisted that there are no issues between the two, and in fairness that has been reflected in some important tasks he has been handed along the way.

A start in the Papa John's Trophy final here was one, and this was another, Sunderland's top-six place still not secure when he entered the fray.

Johnson has been looking to the future, for Maguire's sake as much as the club's, but this underlined why he is always likely to have a part to play.

Though Plymouth's goal clearly rankled, the return of Conor McLaughlin added another reason for the head coach's bullish mood.

To get 45 minutes under his belt at this stage is an unexpected bonus, increasing his chances of being near match fitness when the play-offs roll around. In Bailey Wright, Johnson also felt he is getting back to seeing the defender 'he knows and loves so well'.

Most significant, though, was that Sunderland stopped the rot and put themselves in the play-off picture on their own terms.

April was a wretched month, the latter half a painful form of purgatory as Wearside licked its wounds from another failed tilt at the top two.

Johnson knows a strong finish can allow him to effectively reset the campaign, to lend weight to his enthusiasm and positive messaging.

He will hope that Sunderland have drawn a line in the sand here, handing him with a number of welcome headaches as he bids to ensure his team go into the play-offs with conviction.

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