The main criticisms of Jack Ross assessed in-depth and why Sunderland should stick rather than twist

Sunderland’s last-gasp defeat to Charlton Athletic brought an exhausting season to an abrupt end.

By Phil Smith
Monday, 27 May, 2019, 17:22
Jack Ross and Lee Cattermole at the final whistle on Sunday

Understandably, attention has quickly turned to how the Black Cats can bounce back and where they went wrong this season.

Jack Ross has therefore come under the microscope after a flat end to a campaign that promised so much.

So it seems as if this is a club with little appetite for change.

An assessment of the main criticisms of Ross perhaps shows why that is the case….

Biggest budget

An oft-repeated statement this season, and one that cannot be disputed.

Sunderland carried a wage bill significantly larger than the rest of the division and the four teams who eventually finished above them in the table.

The context is vital nevertheless.

The vast majority of that wage bill was tied up in a small cohort of players retained from back-to-back relegations. Duncan Watmore, Lee Cattermole, Adam Matthews, Donald Love and Bryan Oviedo all stayed on contracts that saw a reduction from the top tier but not the second.

Aiden McGeady, Robbin Ruiter and George Honeyman saw their wages drop after relegation last season but still earned a significant amount.

Most of Sunderland’s squad were League One players on (upper-end, admittedly) League One wages.

It’s worth remembering, too, that these were all players who had endured a tough time at the club but Ross showed his man-management skills to produce good performances from McGeady and Cattermole in particular.

Players who could have caused the club a mighty headache instead played important contributions.

The squad had a massive disparity in terms of its profile, with various players at radically different stages of their career and with radically different salaries.

To forge a resilience and spirit so impressive from that environment was one of the biggest successes in Ross’ first season.

For all his undoubted talent, Oviedo was inconsistent and missed a large chunk of the season through a raft of niggling injuries that followed the failed January move to West Brom.

Love and Watmore missed most of the season through injury and Matthews had problems, too.

In the transfer market, most of Sunderland’s business was done in the free agent market. Their big signings at this level were Charlie Wyke and Will Grigg, the latter in particularly certainly costing an eye-watering figure after Donald's late intervention on deadline day.

Grigg, certainly, was a player of the calibre who most would have expected to give Ross the firepower to deliver promotion.

In the end the loss of Josh Maja was more keenly felt than imagined, with Ross recently saying he felt the youngster could have gone on to score close to 30 league goals.

So Sunderland had a budget that you would have expected to deliver success, but many of the overheads Ross inherited brought challenges of their own.

Best squad on paper

One of the other statements regularly made about Sunderland is they have the best squad in the division, on paper.

Anything less than promotion is therefore an underachievement.

It’s true, to an extent.

Sunderland had a big squad with proven talent in most departments. A raft of central midfielders who have played at a good level, talent in the wide areas and proven League One goalscorers up front.

On reputation, they had a team to be feared.

Whether they truly had the best squad is debatable. What they had was a squad that was one of five who towered above the rest of the league.

Within that grouping it was much closer and the clash with Charlton Athletic proved that.

In Lee Bowyer’s side, you could make a convincing case that at the very least, Patrick Bauer, Naby Sarr (yesterday’s nightmare aside), Josh Cullen, Joe Aribo and Lyle Taylor would easily slot into the Sunderland XI.

The other sides at the top also benefited from greater continuity and thus established a far stronger identity and pattern of play.

Was Sunderland’s squad better than a fifth-placed finish? Probably.

Was it better than two win in ten across the end of the season? Without a shadow of a doubt.

The flat end to the season is at the core of any frustration and anger felt by Sunderland supporters and it more than justified.

The Black Cats were a better side than they showed in the closing weeks, but in the bigger picture they were up against four sides packed with individual quality of their own.

Too defensive/pragmatic tactically

For many the play-off final underlined Sunderland’s biggest issue this season.

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They were on top after being gifted an early goal but could not maintain any tempo or build any sort of attacking momentum.

They lacked the energy up front to press Charlton, who controlled the tempo. They were pushed back and created too few chances, shipping two soft goals at the other end.

Ross arrived determined not to promise ultra-attacking, free-flowing football. He stressed the need not to get seduced into talking too much about philosophy, but his reputation nevertheless was for energetic pressing and attacking.

At Sunderland it has only materialised sporadically.

At times, they have looked like a composed side, geared effectively to creating openings for their individual talent in the wide areas.

Plenty of opposition sides have buckled when Ross' side have been at their best.

Too often, they have looked one-paced and that’s a key reason they ended the season with so many draws.

Ross drew praise for his attacking substitutions in the early part of the season and for his problem solving as the squad remained threadbare and affected by multiple injuries. His lopsided back three was particularly effective and on arguably his best night of the season, a 4-3-1-2 saw a Barnsley side blown away by a wonderfully fluid front three.That was a classic ‘basketball game’, but when Ross went that way later in the season results and performances were poor.

Attempts to partner Will Grigg and Charlie Wyke together ended in chaotic displays at the Stadium of Light, the defence exposed and the midfield overrun.

It increasingly felt as if Ross’ instincts were being curbed by a squad that lacked power at the back and speed throughout.

It led to some flat performances throughout the campaign and if Ross stays, developing a stronger identity must be a key goal.

This was a side impressively tough to beat but not ruthless enough to power into the top two.

Ross will take his share of blame for that.

Poor recruitment

The Sunderland boss arrived admitting that he would need support in the English market.

He mined the Scottish leagues he knew so well, with mixed results. Jon McLaughlin was exceptional, Dylan McGeouch impressed in patches but many fans will be left with a sense of frustration that he featured so little. In itself that tells the tale of a squad too big and too imbalanced.

Lewis Morgan blew hot and cold and while Alim Ozturk was excellent in the final month, his contribution until then was minimal.

Recruitment elsewhere was mixed.

Sunderland did exceptionally well in bringing players who understood the club and fought for it on the pitch. The change in culture was remarkable, but ultimately most would accept that the team was short on energy and height.

In defence, all of Sunderland’s rivals enjoyed far greater continuity and consistency.

It’s a department that Ross is keen to improve, speaking recently of his desire to strengthen the scouting ranks.After automatic promotion was missed, he also pointed out the greater clarity Luton and Barnsley enjoyed in their model for signing and selling players.The post-relegation hangover will take at least another window to fully clear.

That is not an excuse for poor performance, just a reality of where the club as a whole needs to get better.

Those above Ross have as much to consider as he does on the football side.

Verdict

Reflecting on a year in charge, Ross admitted Sunday would be how many defined him.

To that end, he also missed his personal target of delivering promotion at the first attempt.

Players failing to return for pre-season. Not enough players to complete a side at the beginning of that pre-season campaign. Players who looked like they could be key eventually moving on. Significant uncertainty over a host of players right until the very end of the window. Eighteen players who needed to be intergrated into the club and side at some stage over the campaign.

An entirely new staffing structure on the football side to be embedded.

The season ended disappointingly, but Ross has brought professionalism, pride and unity to a club that had been lacking it for so long.

He impressed established players with his meticulous approach to training and preparation.

A side that had forgotten how to win at home did not lose at the Stadium of Light until April.

Only three games were lost in the league before their fate was known.

Much has to improve next year, but there is much to build on, too.

Starting again would surely be counterproductive.

Much is uncertain, and you suspect that ownership structure change could be key.

But the Black Cats have a committed, calm, impressive manager, who has done much excellent work in trying circumstances.