Sunderland’s promotion credentials are set for a massive test in the coming fortnight.
A tricky test at Oxford United followed by three home games in a week.
That of course represents a major opportunity but it will be lost on no one that while results at the Stadium of Light have been pretty good [the team are still unbeaten on home turf], there have have been too many draws .
That in part has been down to a dip in attacking form, reflected in a narrow win over AFC Wimbledon in which the Black Cats had just two shots on target.
That has led to questions about the favoured 4-2-3-1 system and the partnerships being employed by Jack Ross all over the pitch.
For Ross, there are clearly improvements to be made but one obvious factor is a shift in approach from opposition sides, who are invariably sitting deeper than earlier in the season.
“We’ve looked at things closely this week,” he said.
“I’ve watched the game back from a higher angle, which is much easier to see things from.
“At half time I was quite critical of some aspects of what we were doing. Yet when I watched it again I was a bit inaccurate.
“[Wimbledon] came right off the game and I probably didn’t appreciate how much, a lot of the time it was effectively nine outfield players sitting deep.
“It’s not easy to play through that.
“I think we were a little bit static, and also I think that, when you’re playing in front of a big crowd and you don’t score early, you can become impatient,” he added.
“We have good players who genuinely want to do the right things, but sometimes that manifests itself in everyone coming towards the ball.
“Everyone comes towards it apart from your striker who then becomes isolated.
“The players want the ball, because they want to keep taking it, keep trying to create things. But it is in areas where it is hard for them to affect the game because thee are so many bodies between them and the goal.
“That’s been different for us.
“Teams earlier in the season were a lot more on the front foot.
“I don’t think it’s any coincidence that games like Barnsley, Peterborough, more basketball-type games if you like, we’ve responded to that.”
A change in shape is a possibility in the coming weeks, with the arrivals of Lewis Morgan and Grant Leadbitter adding some different options for the Black Cats boss.
“I don’t think we have been as creative [recently] and there are things we can do better,” he said.
“There’s also things that the opposition have done better against us as well.
“For us it’s about weighing up, because early in the season we were more unpredictable, we had to chop and change so much.
“Recently we’ve been a bit more settled, so we have to assess whether that familiarity with what we do has become familiarity for the opposition.
“We’ve looked at that and we’ll try and do better over the rest of the season, to see how we can be a bit more unpredictable if you like.
“I mean that in the best possible way rather than just doing things off the cuff.”
There have been calls for Ross to play a second striker, and the arrival of Will Grigg prives the opportunity to do that.
It has worked on occasions this season, particularly when charlie Wyke and Josh Maja dovetailed nicely at the turn of the year, but Ross has insisted that it would not be an instant cure for the Black Cats.
“If you play two strikers and four midfielders, as some teams do, is that less attacking than a striker and two wingers?” he said.
“I think two wingers and a striker is more attacking.
“Some people might say it’s not, but I just think it’s an easy thing to say [play two strikers] without any real substance to it.
“Even on Saturday, we have McGeady, Wyke and Morgan.
“Would two wide midfielders and two central strikers be more attacking than that?
“I’m playing devil’s advocate a little bit but it’s a simplistic way of looking at it [formations].
“What I’m looking at from Saturday is that we had too many players behind the ball.
“There was a honest reason for that but we’ve shown it to the players this week because it makes the other teams more comfortable when we do it.
“We’ve recognised that.”
Regardless of the system, Ross is pleased to have a natural striker in Grigg at his disposal.
“Even in training on Thursday we did some work, he’s a proper striker,” he said.
“In terms of his movement and how he works from the position of the ball. I’ve always been intrigued by that because that’s what the really good strikers are brilliant at, putting themselves in areas where they can score goals.
“Will is good at that.
“He’ll bring us something hopefully a little bit different.”