Phil Smith's verdict: Assessing what went so wrong for Sunderland against Coventry and what needs to change

Have your say

It was the kind of game, albeit at the very, very extreme end of the scale, that we perhaps expected more of when Jack Ross landed the Sunderland job.

It had been a noted feature of St Mirren's title-winning campaign that more often than not, they won. But when they didn't, they could lose heavily.

Sunderland conceded five goals on a chastening afternoon at the Stadium of Light

Sunderland conceded five goals on a chastening afternoon at the Stadium of Light

That was the manager's philosophy and style. High risk, high reward.

His approach at Sunderland hasn't changed.

Training, preparation and tactics are geared towards an attacking, open style. The likes of Aiden McGeady and certainly earlier in the season, Lynden Gooch, have benefited from an approach that places an emphasis on finding wingers early and in space, being direct in the final third and trying to outscore the opposition.

The Black Cats have often come from behind to win at home and the 4-2 thumping of Barnsley earlier in the season was perhaps the high watermark of that style.

At times, though, it has felt a little more pragmatic and perhaps this infuriating, perplexing defeat gives us some insight into why.

After the game Ross said it was not the time to single out individual players and certainly from his perspective that was right.

The defensive frailties on show nevertheless raised some important questions ahead of the final five games of the season. It was a performance of repeated errors, both on the ball and off it.

Three of the moves that led to a Coventry goal started with Sunderland in possession.

It was an off-day for those in the Black Cats backline but it is equally true that they have never benefited from the same stability in defensive selection and consistency in performance as their top five rivals.

There are very good reasons for that, and those who have stepped in have done superbly to keep Sunderland in the fight for automatic promotion.

With Adam Matthews' injury woe continuing, Luke O'Nien has made a remarkable and impressive transition to right-back. Tom Flanagan has spent most of his career at full-back and only briefly played as one of two centre-backs in a four. Jack Baldwin is making a major step up in club size and at left-back, injury and transfer speculation have been a feature.

January loanee Jimmy Dunne has done well in tough games away from but there have rarely been the settled partnerships enjoyed by Barnsley, Luton, Portsmouth and Charlton.

There have been times this season when a direct approach has unsettled the Black Cats, hardly the biggest of teams in any area of the pitch.

Their success, then, has owed to some impressive adaption from Ross and his defenders, as well as a set-up that has offered them plenty of protection.

In the last two home games, a move away from that has enabled the Black Cats to accommodate a threatening partnership of Charlie Wyke and Will Grigg, but also opened them up to the counter-attack.

The warning signs were there against Burton. Sunderland played well in patches but when they coughed up possession, there were gaps for Nigel Clough's side to attack. Winger Marcus Harness was a constant threat and Jon McLaughlin was called upon to make some big saves.

With the Black Cats even more careless in possession against Coventry City, Mark Robins' sharp frontline ran riot.

Particularly in the first half, it felt as if every time the away side picked up the ball they had an overload.

Sunderland did well to fight back before the break but having surprisingly persisted with their shape, the same issues returned in the second half.

It was a chastening defeat at the worst time of the season.

4-4-2 worked well on the road, Sunderland outstanding at Accrington Stanley and tenacious at Rochdale.

But given the attacking quality of the final two opponents at the Stadium of Light, Doncaster Rovers and Portsmouth, it has surely been seen for the last time on home turf.

Doncaster are one of the best pressing teams in the league and Sunderland cannot afford for their back four to make any errors like the ones on show here. Certainly, they need better protection in midfield if they do.

Ross finds himself in a position where his team have their automatic promotion fate in their own hands with just five to play.

Regardless of what anyone says about budgets, that is an impressive achievement and a vindication of his approach for much of the season.

There was so much to like about this afternoon, too.

Charlie Wyke outstanding, Lewis Morgan threatening, Bryan Oviedo back right at it just when his team need him.

A wonderful atmosphere sparked by the stunning fan-led flag display in the Roker End. Another show of the character of this group of players who even when short of their best, leave everything out on the pitch.

As Ross himself said, though, an assessment is needed ahead of the Easter weekend fixtures.

The return of Lee Cattermole and Chris Maguire, both of whom would add some much needed balance and experience, cannot come soon enough.

Either way, Sunderland know they cannot afford another 90 minutes like this one if they are to avoid the lottery of the play-offs.

From what we have seen this season, both players and staff are more than capable of making the necessary adjustments.