Phil Smith's verdict: The statistic that sums up Sunderland's season and the key questions ahead of play-off tilt

It was probably apt that Sunderland's regular league campaign ended this way.

Monday, 10th May 2021, 12:00 pm

If you were to simplify their season and pick out the one biggest reason why their top-two hopes fell away, then it would be the multitude of games like this one.

The statistics would tell you that on home turf, Sunderland were the better side.

More possession, more shots, more crosses, a superior XG. On balance of play, the objective assessment was that they could and should have won this game.

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Jordan Jones shoots early in Sunderland's 1-1 draw with Northampton Town

And yet. There was nothing about their performance that stirred, that left you feeling like the lack of three points was undeserved.

They were unlucky to concede, certainly. A free kick that took a significant deflection and wrong-footed Lee Burge, who otherwise didn't have a save to make.

All the same, you felt the hosts were fortunate that Northampton Town were unable to make better use of a number of promising counter-attacking opportunities.

As for Sunderland's play on the ball, it was too often laboured and lacking inspiration.

Not enough movement across the front line, and certainly not enough dynamism in possession. Nowhere near enough quality and bravery to break the lines and to do so regularly.

There have quite simply been too many games like this and the table for home form across the campaign brutally underlines it.

Sunderland sit 12th, with a meagre points-per-game return of 1.52. They have won just nine games across the campaign, and have taken eleven points less than Hull City on their home turf. Peterborough United have taken an extra 15 points from their home games.

That is not good enough for a side with promotion aspirations, and nor was this performance.

There was some mitigation on this occasion, as Lee Johnson noted.

Perhaps if there was a lack of bite on his team's display then that reflected the obvious, subconscious desire to try and avoid either injury or suspension for the play-off campaign.

Johnson had also managed his squad to try and get the right number of minutes across the board, meaning that most of his five substitutions were pre-meditated.

Given that neither side ultimately had anything of consequence to play for (though Sunderland wanted to secure being at home for the second leg of their semi final), it was perhaps understandable that there was a distinct air of pre-season to the tempo of the contest.

For both sides, and those watching on, this felt like a form of footballing purgatory before the decisive moments arrive over the horizon.

Johnson was eager not to overreact in his post-match assessment, knowing that his biggest challenge now is getting his players physically and mentally right over the next ten days.

All the same, it was clear that there was a disappointment with the performance he had witnessed.

He wanted a win, and he wanted a win with style.

That perhaps felt like the most significant aspect of this afternoon: the lack of performances that grabbed the attention and demanded a place in the starting XI for that trip to Sincil Bank.

Johnson stuck by and large to the formula that had produced not just an overdue win at Plymouth Argyle, but a surge in attacking output against an admittedly accommodating opponent.

Sunderland, though, lacked both the rhythm and the threat they had at Home Park.

Johnson speaks often about 'personality', his desire to see players grasp the game and bend it to their will. There was not enough of that here, particularly in midfield where the visitors were too easily able to sit in and defend their box in numbers.

To his credit, Jordan Jones was persistent and though some of his end product was disappointing, his assist for Carl Winchester's was reward for his willingness to keep driving forward.

Winchester, too, showed what Sunderland needed more of as he brought some energy to the press and the kind of late runs that eventually yielded the goal.

In terms of both the shape and personnel, though, it is hard to know what Johnson's strongest side should be for those semi finals.

Part of that is also due to the defensive injuries that have so hampered Sunderland of late, and that cannot be understated when it comes to assessing the campaign as a whole. At this stage, it is impossible to say with any conviction whether Conor McLaughlin or Tom Flanagan will be fit enough for the contest with a Lincoln City side notable for the pace and agility in their forward line.

A run of one win in nine, which ended in this uninspiring display, has perhaps left optimism firmly in check for the play-off campaign on Wearside.

There are two things which feel fundamentally true ahead of those crucial fixtures.

One is that Sunderland will have to find another level from where they have been in the last six weeks to succeed.

Two is that they still, for all the clear shortcomings in the squad, should be able to do it.

From their games against Lincoln City and Oxford United in the league, they have taken four and six points respectively.

Both of those teams have played well enough to demand respect and caution, but not fear. And though Blackpool twice beat the Black Cats on the foundation of their excellent defence, in both games Johnson's side did enough to land a different result.

Sunday's display was ultimately a reminder of why Sunderland were not good enough to win automatic promotion.

The question is whether Johnson can find the balance to edge his side past the rest.

From this 90 minutes, there were probably more questions than answers.

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