Phil Smith's verdict: The two competing truths about Sunderland right now after a bleak night at the Stadium of Light

There are two things fundamentally true about Sunderland right now and if at first they seem a little contradictory, then last night was further evidence that they can in fact sit alongside each other:

Wednesday, 28th April 2021, 11:42 am
Updated Wednesday, 28th April 2021, 11:43 am

1) This has been an utterly wretched month, and right now there is little excitement for a play-off campaign when the Black Cats, remarkably, sit bottom of the League One form table over the last six games.

2) Sunderland s season could and probably still should end in promotion.

The second point is not meant to detract from the seriousness of the first, for this was an unmistakably bleak night at the Stadium of Light.

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Sullay Kaikai puts Blackpool ahead at the Stadium of Light

Under gloomy skies it was impossible not to recall the bleak midwinter days in which Sunderland laboured on the fringes of the play-off positions.

It was a game in which by most statistical metrics they were dominant, and yet it was hard to argue with much conviction that they deserved the win they so needed.

Yes, they were unlucky in some key aspects.

Blackpool created little and took the lead through a quite stunning individual effort, Sullay Kaikai's thumping first-time effort as good as anything a Premier League player has produced on this turn. They were indebted late on to their goalkeeper, who three times denied Charlie Wyke from the sort of positions that no one has been able to stop him from in 2021.

And yet.

The first half was painfully laboured. Blackpool bolstered their defence, pressed only in deep areas and put the onus on Sunderland to come and find a way to earn the points.

For the most part Lee Johnson's side were found wanting, too pedestrian in their tempo and nowhere near incisive enough in their passing.

They should have scored late on, for sure, but through the opening 70 minutes of the game they were largely insipid.

There have simply been too many games like this at the Stadium of Light this season and that above all else is the reason why Sunderland find themselves well short of the top-two in the final reckoning.

The frustration for supporters is that for a while it looked as if the Black Cats may have moved beyond this sort of performance, and yet now they are staring down the barrel of their worst run since dropping into League One.

There have been lows aplenty over the last three years and so there feels little use in trying to rank them; but this latest bump in the road has understandably allowed apathy and a sense of helplessness to emerge on Wearside again.

Johnson was asked afterwards if he could put his finger on what had gone wrong for his side in April, a month that began with genuine automatic promotion aspects and ended without a single win.

No excuses, he said, but yes he very much could. A bruising fixture list, and a raft of crucial injuries to senior defensive players.

Across the month as a whole it is impossible to argue that those weaknesses in the backline have not proved costly, not just in the individual lapses that have led to opposition goals, but in the way it has prevented him from freshening up his midfield with the likes of Luke O'Nien and Max Power.

Johnson nevertheless conceded that he has a raft of attacking options and it is here that last night's performance must sting.

Chris Maxwell was in inspired form, undoubtedly, but what has been most alarming about this winless run is the lack of composure and craft that we have seen from Sunderland in attack, particularly when they have been trailing in games.

This was another night when the most likely avenue to a goal seemed to be balls fired in the direction of two traditional target men.

Johnson said afterwards that he is now facing his second big challenge as Sunderland manager.

The first was to drag them back from that opening afternoon of his tenure, when they laboured against Wigan Athletic in a similar contest.

He did that superbly, hauling them to the brink of the top two.

Now the challenge of bringing his side back to form for those play-off games is just as great. His options are unlikely to improve greatly after the news that Dion Sanderson will be absent for the rest of the season. Conor McLaughlin and Tom Flanagan could yet return to play some part but Flanagan in particular will be short of match fitness.

And yet.

Even through this run of poor results, there has been little from Sunderland to suggest that they should not (in theory, at least) be able to navigate a play-off campaign.

They have been beaten twice by Blackpool, who to their credit have shown a defensive resilience throughout and on Tuesday night, were intelligent in the way they used possession to keep the home side at arm's length. In neither game have Sunderland been outplayed, though.

In none of these games have they been truly outplayed.

Against Wigan Athletic a bright start gave way to a desperately poor second half and on all seven occasions, there have been spells in games where Sunderland have looked good enough to come through the challenge.

There is clearly a lack of balance in the squad, shortcomings that will take what will hopefully be a significant summer transfer window to help address.

This campaign should not be a write-off, though.

Sunderland have a squad capable of far, far better than this.

Saturday has to be the start of showing exactly that, the start of turning around form in time for a play-off tilt that can still be rescued.

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