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Phil Smith's verdict: Why Sunderland's frustrating draw came with real positives - and some major concerns

If you'd been told before Sunderland travelled to Wigan Athletic a week ago that they would take four points and two clean sheets from their next two fixtures, you'd probably have been quietly enthused.

By Phil Smith
Sunday, 6th March 2022, 12:30 pm

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If you'd been told at the turn of the year that Sunderland would, with ten games of their League One campaign to play, fall out of the play-off places, you'd have been baffled, angry, and everything in between.

Which is why making sense of this frustrating draw at The Valley, and where this team finds itself, isn't straightforward.

For every green shoot, there’s frustration.

Ross Stewart goes close at The Valley

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The latter is obvious, Sunderland dropping two points against a side who had lost their last five and shipped twelve goals in the process.

The Black Cats now, in what is a stark reflection of the challenge that awaits them from here until the end of the season, sit eighth in League One when it comes to points-per-game.

Even that doesn't tell the full story, with Ipswich Town and Portsmouth in such good form that they cannot yet be ruled out of the top-six equation entirely.

Falling short of the top six was once just about unthinkable, yet now it is a very realistic possibility.

The green shoot? This was a game that they controlled almost entirely, particularly in the first half when Ross Stewart missed a handful of good chances to put his side ahead. Even if they were not quite so dominant in the second, then they still created by far the better of the openings. Dennis Cirkin had a shot cleared off the line, Bailey Wright headed over the bar when he ought to have hit the target, and Craig MacGillivray made three strong stops in the final ten minutes.

Another green shoot; Nathan Broadhead sharp and lively on his return to the starting XI. Though the ball never quite fell for him at the crucial moment, there were more than enough dangerous runs and clever turns to assure you he has a big role to play between now and the end of the season.

Another green shoot, Luke O’Nien taking just about a full part in the pre-match warm ups, signalling that his return to action, and the flexibility that will bring Neil, is imminent.

And then the frustration - Alex Pritchard hobbling off the pitch with 20 minutes to play. He had again been the heart of his side's good attacking play here, dangerous through balls and set plays aplenty.

Alex Neil gives little away when it comes to injuries, so for him to cite this as his biggest concern was telling.

"He's been fundamental for me since I came here," Neil said.

"I know him well and it doesn't look good."

Lively cameos from Elliot Embleton and Patrick Roberts were well timed given that concern, but to lose Pritchard for any significant length of time would be a significant blow just when the worst of Sunderland’s injury problems were beginning to clear.

All the same, there was no mistaking that generally this was the most upbeat Neil has been since he took charge at Sunderland.

For all the frustration at the end result here there can be no doubt that Neil has had an impact and a positive one at that.

Charlton barely flickered here, offering a sporadic set-piece threat but only one shot of note from open play.

A team that has look flawed defensively for most of the campaign, particularly on the road, has produced back-to-back clean sheets and been good value for them too.

After excelling against Josh Magennis last week, Bailey Wright and Arbenit Xhemajli now limited Jayden Stockley to precious few openings when in the return fixture he had often been dominant.

That was all the more encouraging given that they were far higher up the pitch, and therefore far more exposed, than they were at the DW Stadium.

Sunderland look more cohesive, more resilient, and nowhere near as vulnerable aerially as they did merely a fortnight ago.

There were certainly times when you felt that they were perhaps letting the game drift a touch, when another shift in gear might have seen Charlton buckle, but that defensive improvement has not noticeably affected their attacking threat. Their failure to score here was about the final moment, rather than in getting to the final third and forging openings.

“I have real confidence in this group,” Neil said afterwards.

Not one for hyperbole, that was a comment that said much. It was not so long ago that Neil was wondering aloud what kind of performance his team would produce next, when his concerns over the mental fatigue of some players and the lack of match sharpness for others was the dominant theme of his press conferences.

There is much he still wants to change but for the first time he is beginning to see a team in his image, one that has taken the first steps to addressing its soft underbelly.

“The last thing I want us to be is a soft touch,” Neil said.

"We need to stand up, fight our corner, and then equally we need to have a quality to play through teams. I thought we showed all that today.”

What Neil’s Sunderland have now is a platform. What they don’t have is time, or any real margin for error.

Those green shoots need to grow quickly, and it needs to start on Tuesday night.

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