Phil Smiths's verdict: The inside track on Sunderland's latest crucial win and why it was another step forward for Lee Johnson

'Five minutes left, let's press them everywhere,' was the call from the Sunderland dugout.

Sunday, 21st February 2021, 12:04 pm

The game was won and the points secured, but Lee Johnson wanted a strong finish and every Burton pass in the sequence that followed was greeted with a cry of 'press'.

The call for more could be heard on the pitch, too.

Charlie Wyke's third had put the contest beyond doubt but Max Power was insisting that there were more goals out there for the Black Cats.

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Phil Smiths's verdict: The inside track on Sunderland's latest crucial win and why it was another step forward for Lee Johnson

They almost found it, too.

Jordan Jones drove once again into a dangerous area and at the end of the move only an outstanding save from Ben Garratt denied Chris Maguire from getting on the scoresheet.

It felt like a good moment to take a step back and appreciate the level of performance that Johnson's side had delivered.

Even if Chris Coleman's tenure looked to have been ignited on this ground four years ago, Burton Albion have not been a side against which Sunderland have been able to enjoy too many happy memories.

It was Liam Boyce’s goal that condemned the Black Cats to the drop later that season and four meetings since then had yielded nothing better than a draw.

You could forgive Sunderland fans for fearing the stage was set for disappointment.

After all, this had been the most positive of weeks. A thumping win over Doncaster Rovers, a tense but rewarding win against Lincoln, and at long last the confirmation of Kyril Louis-Dreyfus' takeover.

To fall short now would be, as the saying goes, 'typical Sunderland'.

Even in the early stages of his tenure, this was a theme that Johnson had noted. He described it as a capacity for 'self-sabotage', whereby the momentum is quickly disrupted just when things looked to be turning.

Sometimes it's injury, sometimes poor performance. Sometimes it can be events out of anyone's control, such as a COVID outbreak on the back of a superb win at Lincoln City, for example.

Johnson had good reason to be worried about this one, too.

Burton may be a shadow of the side who have so troubled the Black Cats in recent times, but their form under Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink is improving and their January business strong.

They had enjoyed a full week on the training pitch while Sunderland battled their way through that nervy semi final.

Sunderland, too, were forced into a change of system with both Bailey Wright and Callum McFadzean ruled out.

Of the back five, only two [Dion Sanderson and Jake Vokins] could really be said to be playing in a natural position.

All of this made the performance that followed an immensely impressive one.

The early goal was a significant early boost, and a fine strike from Grant Leadbitter at that, but right through the first half Sunderland played with a poise and fluidity that threatened to overwhelm the hosts.

Hasselbaink cut an agitated figure in the Burton dugout, frustrated at the pressing from his front players and their inability to hold the ball up.

That was credit to the makeshift backline, both in terms of their physicality and their composure on the ball.

Gooch was a revelation on the right, reminiscent of his performances in a similar role for Jack Ross in the early stages of the 2018/19 season. When Sunderland moved it quickly they were able to find him in space and the home side struggled to cope with the speed of the movement.

Johnson had hinted that his side would be more 'total football' than 'counterpress' with players filling in at centre half, and what was encouraging was how quickly the individuals concerned seemed to have grasped their new roles.

Burton were fortunate to only be two behind at the break.

Hasselbaink was always likely to get a response from his side and fortune was without question with the visitors in the opening stages of the second half.

Jonny Smith is a player Johnson knows well from his time in the youth set up at Bristol City and twice he struck the woodwork as he cut inside from the right.

On the second occasion, Ryan Broom managed to miss from barely a yard out.

Moments before Josh Earl had been shown a second yellow card for an altercation with Aiden O'Brien as a loose ball ran out of play and in these moments any real prospect of a comeback was probably lost for Burton.

They were spirited, though, and it was noticeable through stages of the second half just how vocal Sunderland's players were as they tried to drive each up the pitch.

Johnson again found solutions from the bench, Jones bringing fresh energy to the forward line and Carl Winchester some welcome composure in midfield.

After a difficult spell Sunderland finished the game in complete control, 'total football' on show as Luke O'Nien regularly drove out from the back.

The mind wandered back to the post-match press conferences at Shrewsbury Town, Sunderland humbled in the freezing cold and their season left hanging in the balance.

Johnson was visibly frustrated but said he would not take the easy way out, say that these aren't his players or any of the other cliches new managers can often use.

He still believed in this side, he said.

Power said there would be no attempt to look for positives, or hide from what had just gone on.

It was now or never, he said; time to stand up and be counted.

The response since then has been superb, Power driving his side on from midfield as the quality of the play improves from game to game.

Louis-Dreyfus' arrival allows Sunderland and Johnson to begin investing in 'key areas' for the long term, and in the short term they are beginning to find real rhythm on the pitch.

That though, is for us to get excited about.

For Johnson and his squad? 'Onto the next one.’

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