Sunderland are in a strong position but Joey Barton’s Fleetwood show they have much to work on

Jon McLaughlin saves from the penalty spot.
Jon McLaughlin saves from the penalty spot.
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A team in the image of their manager, Joey Barton’s Fleetwood weren’t shy to talk themselves up in the build-up to this game.

Barton himself had not been shy in promoting his team’s capabilities and there were times when you felt they were somewhat overplaying their hand.

Like Oxford United the week before, talk of being a plucky underdog belied the talent in their ranks.

Yes, Sunderland’s budget dwarfs Fleetwood’s, but Barton has spent well on experience, talent and physicality.

Like Oxford, they threw everything at the Black Cats early in each half and like against Oxford, Sunderland came close to wilting.

In fairness to Barton, his team were organised and aggressive.

SAFC 1-1 FTFC EFL league1 Stadium of Light 08-09-2018. Picture by FRANK REID

SAFC 1-1 FTFC EFL league1 Stadium of Light 08-09-2018. Picture by FRANK REID

They will do well this season and they ought to.

For Sunderland, the frustration again was that too much of the game was played on the opposition’s terms.

They had two spells in the game where their superiority in passing and movement told.

On both occasions it was towards the end of the half, when Fleetwood’s intensity dropped and they were able to build properly from the back.

Dylan McGeouch was able to move the ball cleanly, Jack Baldwin and Tom Flanagan able to drift wide.

That pushed Sunderland’s wide players higher up the pitch and suddenly they had options to rotate and build pressure.

In these periods, the pitch seems insufferably big for the opposition and they look like a side who will wear teams down.

That is very much the style that Jack Ross is trying to implement.

At the moment, however, he will be all too aware that the spells in the game where Sunderland lose that control are too frequent and too long.

Yes, Sunderland created more than enough chances to win it in the closing stages but Fleetwod could have added to their lead in the opening 30 minutes and had Paddy Madden converted his penalty, it would have been no more than the Black Cats deserved for a woeful start to the second half.

Ross was interesting when pressed on the issue earlier in the week.

League One football. frenetic and end-to-end from the first whistle, is proving to be a major culture shift for everyone who was become used to the top two tiers of English football in recent years.

There, teams tend to start tentatively, and a wide desire for possession often leads to low tempo games.

Here, as Ross himself said, ‘the first whistle goes and all hell breaks loose’.

Sunderland are unquestionably still adjusting to that,

Ross felt that the Black Cats actually started the game well but there is no doubt that they struggled after Madden scored the easiest of headers inside the first ten minutes.

That is Ross’s biggest concern, the fifth goal Sunderland have conceded from a set piece this season (including a penalty and a direct free-kick).

The only goal they have conceded from open play this season came from a cross into the box.

To that end, the presence of Tom Flanagan, Charlie Wyke and Jerome Sinclair in the final quarter of the game served as a significant boost.

All three have strength and aerial presence and so will be important players.

Seven games in, then, and the Black Cats have much to improve.

These two home draws have perhaps served as something of a reality check and the Black Cats are learning fast that teams are not coming to the Stadium of Light to sit off and defend deep.

That presents challenges they will have to deal with better.

Still, they are unbeaten, in the play-off positions and with the automatic spots still very much in sight.

Jack Ross is absolutely right to remind everyone of that.

His team has spirit in abundance and increasingly, they have the options to change games from the bench and the importance of that over the long winter months should not be underestimated.

Improvement is certainly needed now, but the platform to improve from is solid.