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Sunderland let themselves down at Burton but they have earned patience

BAFC 2-1 SAFC EFL League1 15-09-2018. Picture by FRANK REID
BAFC 2-1 SAFC EFL League1 15-09-2018. Picture by FRANK REID
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One of the key messages from Jack Ross this season has been that he would be consistent in his behaviours and his words no matter what.

So after a superb start to the season, he was measured and perhaps a touch circumspect.

How he would react to not only the first league defeat of his tenure but by some distance the worst performance, then, was going to be interesting.

Conducting his post-match duties a touch later than usual (time to compose himself, perhaps?), Ross was again the epitome of calm.

Blunt and severely critical of his team’s first-half performance, but no drama and no histrionics.

That was reassuring, even if Sunderland’s display had been alarming.

For the first time, Ross’s system and selection comprehensively misfired.

They have started games poorly before, of course, but rarely have they looked as dishevelled as they did at the Pirelli Stadium.

Charlie Wyke couldn’t make the ball stick up front, and a midfield two of George Honeyman and Lee Cattermole was overrun.

Jerome Sinclair looked wasted on the left flank and the two full-backs nowhere near robust enough defensively.

Burton, it has to be said, are a good side who rarely dip below their standard output when it comes to energy and physicality.

They are a team in the image of their manager.

Nigel Clough prowled the touchline, tough talking, demanding and often more than a touch intimidating. After Chris Maguire’s goal Damien McCrory (who had been too slow to close him down) was given a dressing down that left your ears burning and your eyes watering.

They caught Sunderland cold and the Black Cats more than deserved their punishment.

The need for improvent is stark and obvious.

Ross himself has put Sunderland’s early woes down to ‘wilting physically’.

Not because of a shortage in height or power, the selection of Sinclair and Wyke made this his strongest team yet, but due to a lack of nous and willingness in terms of how they use their body.

It is developing into something of a recurring theme, as is the habit of conceding from set piece situations.

Kyle McFadzean could rarely have had an easier finish than the one he had here, left in acres if space to head home.

Three games without a win has for the first time put some pressure on Ross and his team, and a response against Rochdale on Saturday is a necessity.

The time for panic, however, is surely some way off yet.

That Ross does not quite have his best XI and system nailed down is no surprise given the way injuries and suspension have affected him so far.

Dylan McGeouch and Max Power are arguably his best midfield options and the fluidity he craves in the forward areas will take time and familiarity to establish.

Sunderland showed in a dominant spell that followed Maguire’s strike that they can compete physically.

The held the ball up better in the forward areas, threatened on the flanks and won good free-kicks in dangerous areas.

Ross knows that in every game so far this season they have at least one spell where they have regularly carved an opponent of good standard open.

In the coming week he will have to consider his best team and his players will have to work relentlessly on their shortcomings both in starting games and defending dead-ball situations.

This game did not reflect well on them, particularly the first half when it was fair and right to question their mentality and application.

They remain in credit, however, after a promising start to the season in which they have shown commitment and application.

Deliver many more performances like this and that positivity will unquestionably erode.

Ross will know that he is also battling against the weight of previous seasons, a club that has become used to failure and a fanbase that understandably fears a false dawn.

But it is worth being patient with a side that tries to play attacking football, with a manager who tries to pick attacking sides and make pro-active substituions.

A side that so far has bounced back well when they have disappointed in games and have the chance to do again in the coming weeks.

They remain a work in progress and rapid improvents are needed.

Get that right, and this disappointing defeat can be little more than a footnote to the story of the season.

Eight games and one defeat in, Ross is entitled to remain consistent and calm.