The two major challenges facing Jack Ross as he looks to steer Sunderland through choppy waters
Not long ago the idea of Sunderland scoring from corners in consecutive games would have seen like something of a pipedream.
Jack Ross and his coaching staff had calculated that less than 1% of the team’s set pieces had led to goals.
Work on the training ground was relentless, a number of new routines tried in games.
Generally the perception was that Sunderland’s lack of physicality and height left them hamstrung in the oppositon box.
That was certainly true, but Ross also felt that the consistency of delivery was a big issue.
Sunderland had lots of technically good players, but no one holding their hand up and producing the goods on a regular basis.
The way that, for example, Rangers loanee Greg Docherty puts the ball on the money time after time for Shrewsbury Town, producing their vital goal at the Stadium of Light earlier this season.
The arrival of Grant Leadbitter has changed Sunderland’s threat t in an instant.
It’s not just the two deliveries that have led to goals for Jimmy Dunne and Jack Baldwin. It’s the general consistency that has transformed Sunderland’s threat and meant that the routines desgined by the coaching staff to create unmarked runners are now having an affect.
Dunne’s arrival has also brought into the fold a player who is an absolutely natural at attacking the first ball, something that was missing in the squad.
So a major improvement has been made thanks to a combination of exhaustive preparation and finding the right personnel for the task.
It goes without saying that Ross needs a similar result in other areas of Sunderland’s game.
The 1-1 draw with Blackpool was a step forward in that his Black Cats side created more chances and produced more shots than we have seen in recent games.
On the specific task of getting more bodies in the final third, there was improvement, even if it was steady rather than spectacular.
In isolation, it was a decent performance and a game that Sunderland were unlucky not to win.
In the bigger picture, it was two points dropped in a challenging promotion race and one that underliend the two key challenges that lie ahead for Ross.
It is fair to say they are ones that he will not have faced yet in his management career.
One of his favourite points to make is that every manager at every club has their own unique set of challenges.
Generally speaking it is used as a response to talk of Sunderland’s budget and the individual quality at his disposal.
In recent weeks we have also seen another unique challenge that only Sunderland face in this league.
After dropping points against Leicester City last week, there was much talk of the ‘weight of history’ and how it would affect Liverpool in the race for the Premier League.
The passion of that fanbase and the long absence of title glory creating a unique pressure.
For Sunderland, the desire to get back to where the club belongs creates a similar feeling.
Quite understandably, right across the club, the reality of the League One slog has hit home and the desire to get back in the top two tiers grows and grows.
As Luton and Barnsley go from strength to strength, that creates a tension when Sunderland dip below their best, something which has unquestionaby been too often of late. Ross also has a group of players whereby many have never faced this level of scrutiny or expectation.
It is a privilege for the manager and the players to have that, but it no doubt takes some adapting too, as well.
It is a test for Ross, who is tasked with making improvements while ensuring there is no sense of panic, not ripping up the template which has delivered plenty of wins so far.
To protect his players while not masking the obvious deficiencies.
His recent press conferences have been interesting in that sense, the Black Cats boss fiercely protective of his players and challenging those who think his team should coast to title success.
He will know that if he can improve performances, then Sunderland’s size, like Liverpool, will be immediately become a major asset in the push for promotion.
Even Tuesday night showed some evidence of that.
A Blackpool side that played with good composure for the most part were reduced in the last 20 minutes to wild hacks into touch and up the pitch.
Far from enjoying the sense of occasion at the Stadium of Light, they looked they might wilt.
Of course, to reproduce that regularly Ross needs to find the right balance of personnel.
His changes on Tuesday night and brought some positives and some negatives.
Many selections were divisive, but that will always be the case when you are working with the sheer size of squad that Sunderland have.
Their January business was good in bringing in real quality but it also creates headaches everywhere you look.
When all are fit, Ross has 25 outfield players realistically pushing for 11 places.
For context, Machester City probably have 21.
That will not only increase the scrutiny on Ross but also challenge gim to keep a lot of players out of the picture motivated. There is a balance to be struck, too, between rotating and ensuring players don’t become cowed by the threat of being hooked from the team.
So yes, many managers would love to be in his position, but as Ross always says, everyone has their unique challenges.
His hope is that the application and quality that has come together to improve those awful set pieces happens produces results elsewhere on the pitch.
For that to happen, he will have to settle on the right blend from a big squad and crucially, channel the club’s size into positive momentum.
If he pulls it off, he will deserve every bit of praise that will come his way.