Deputy Editor Malcolm Dawson writes…..with so many games to fit in between Wembley and the end of the season Pete Sixsmith and I agreed to job share the match reports so if you’ve come here looking for his erudite take on yesterday’s events at the soon to be renamed Stadium of Light, I’m afraid you’ll just have to put up with my version. Yesterday was a chance for me to catch up with some old mates from the Heart of England Branch while enjoying a couple of pints of Landlord in the Kings Arms. A couple of them I hadn’t seen since the Mick McCarthy days whilst the others, travelling up from Coventry of all places, were sent on a detour around Northallerton and other parts of rural North Yorkshire after an incident on the A1(M). They just about made it in time for a pint before kick off of what was to prove to be a pretty action packed game.
Bill Taylor, Bishop Auckland born, Sunderland through and through and still a devotee of all things SAFC, even though he is now domiciled in Canada, was mildly critical of my headline for Sixer’s Burton soapbox in which I described Tuesday’s result as disappointing. Well if I thought Tuesday’s result was disappointing I thought yesterday’s was equally so.
Equally so? Surely you are screaming why not more so? After all we lost for only the third time this season, the first time we have witnessed a home defeat in the league and we have slipped back out of the promotion places. The game against the Brewers could have gone either way as could yesterday’s. In truth we didn’t deserve to win yesterday but we could have on another day, same as Tuesday. Mind you on Tuesday we just about merited a point. Yesterday we didn’t.
In the introduction to yesterday’s Seven M. Salut mentioned the fact that social media was awash with angry, anguished messages about how wretched Sunderland’s defensive performance was. I don’t do social media. I can’t be bothered with it and while I have friends and family who tell me how useful it is my uninformed perception of it is that it provides a platform for the ignorant, the uninformed and the hard of thinking to air their simplistic views in language that often is hurtful and offensive without thought of the consequences. I accept that as in life, this is probably only a small minority but it’s something I feel I would rather do without. Another aspect of it which tries my patience is the lack of consistency in the views that are expressed by that vocal few – something which I glean from those sites and articles that seem to think people’s tweets and Facebook comments constitutes news.
Was yesterday’s defending shocking?
Well yes it was and there is no getting away from that but why? Jack Ross is trying to deflect the blame from his players, which is not only good management but also pragmatic. The fact is that our defence was exposed and exploited and a large part of that was down to the personnel who were available and the way in which the team was set up. For most of the season we have seen a formation that employs a single striker. Often we only had one available but that didn’t stop armchair managers calling for a traditional 4-4-2 citing a lack of firepower with the 4-5-1 set up.
Against Coventry we not only set up in a 4-4-2 shape but we had Luke O’Nien and Bryan Oviedo as the full backs, both of whom had obviously been told to push forward and provide width in the attacking half of the pitch while Honeyman and Morgan played slightly narrower. Power too, though nominally a box to box to box midfielder was often pushed higher up the pitch leaving Leadbitter as the only protection for the centre backs. If this was always the pre-match plan or came about after we found ourselves a goal down early doors I couldn’t say for certain but it did look as if team instructions were to get forward at every opportunity.
As a pairing Flanagan and Baldwin have at times looked unbeatable but that has tended to be where opponents have lumped the ball forward and they have had a lot of high balls to deal with, or where they can attack the ball whilst going forward. Both Burton and Coventry had several, quick, mobile forwards who moved the ball quickly, turned both centre backs inside out and created space and shooting opportunities. Should Jack Ross who is meticulous in his planning been prepared for that? Had the whole squad been available I don’t think we would have seen that starting XI. Adam Matthews and Reece James, might have been preferred to provide a more defensively minded back four, Lee Cattermole or Dylan McGeouch could have provided more bite in front of the centre backs. A fit Aiden McGeady and Chris Maguire could have allowed Honeyman to play more centrally. Morgan, who had a good game yesterday might have started on the bench but would have been an option to provide width on the opposite side to McGeady and Grigg, who looks as if he is playing through an injury might not have started. Ifs and buts and the manager had to pick a team from a seriously depleted squad. That doesn’t mean he got it right but could any of us have engineered a better result against the Sky Blues?
We started off well enough. Lewis Morgan had a shot saved whilst Baldwin and Flanagan dealt with a City corner well enough but after only 12 minutes we were 1-0 down. Recently O’Nien has been the blue eyed boy, but he did what would have tuned Tommy Clish, my old PE teacher at Houghton Grammar, red with frustration when he tried to play a ball across the face of goal looking for Grant Leadbitter. It was a fair way out but an alert Amadou Bakayako cut out the intended pass, moved it quickly to Jordy Hiwula-Mayifuila on the right. His first time pass inside found Bright Enobakhare who moved the ball quickly and side footed through a crowd of red and white shirts to find the bottom corner. One loose pass, one forward with quick feet. One nil.
Whatever criticisms can be levelled at this Sunderland team a lack of resilience and the ability to fight back after an early setback is not one (or should that be two?) and it only took four minutes for the Lads to get the first of their three equalisers courtesy of skipper Honeyman. Oviedo brought the ball out from the back and passed it forward to Morgan. The Celtic loanee made good progress down the left wing before cutting inside and looking up to see Honeyman just outside the box. Honeyman found the target via a deflection.
This might have been the start of the come back but those of us who were there on Tuesday and could see how much trouble quick passing movements could cause by dragging our defenders out of position recognised the threat and the next two Coventry goals were greeted with an air of resigned inevitability by those around me, whilst at the same time not extinguishing the hope that we might still claw this one back.
It was a quick, slick all along the ground passing movement that set up Bakayako for the second goal, with crisp movement and ball retention, the visitors economically bringing the ball out of defence, with no stop/start, have a look around and pass sideways thinking and finding himself running into space, the forward again stroked the ball, rather than blasting it into the net. It was a good run which left our defenders flat footed but to be fair was the type of move that needs to be cut out at source, rather than one where outright blame can be put at the feet of the centre backs. Sometimes you have to credit the opposition and had we scored it we would have been full of praise for our boys.
Their third came about when Grigg was dispossessed on the right of the half way line. Enobakhare again showed quick feet before slipping the ball to Hiwula-Mayifuila. It appeared he was looking for the far post but rather like the Burton goal on Tuesday and in almost the identical spot it was again deflected, this time off Jack Baldwin to wrong foot McLaughlin.
Four goals in the first 25 minutes had sent the 4,000 or so Coventry fans into raptures. In a funny sort of way this was a bit of a help to the home side. I doubt if there were many more than 100 sat in the North Stand Upper on Tuesday and while the home crowd were never overtly negative, the sense of frustration probably got through to the players. With such a good away following, the noise cranked up a gear while the hope in my section of the West Stand at least was that we could pull one back and go in just one goal behind. That we went in level was as pleasing as it was unexpected, though by pleasing I’m not saying it was deemed satisfactory, just an acknowledgement that things could have been a lot worse.
Charlie Wyke continued his recent rehabilitation back into a goal scoring centre forward when Power, Oviedo and Morgan working down the left wing, got another cross into the box. The keeper should have dealt with it and though Grigg was hovering he was really under no pressure, but he flapped, the ball fell loose and Wyke was on hand to stick it in the net, then just as we were prepared to settle for a one goal half time deficit we equalised for the second time.
Once more it was Morgan who fired in a cross from deep just as we were preparing for the half time break. Wyke rose highest at the far post and his nod down found Grigg, who though under pressure from the Coventry centre back, somehow kept control and poked the ball home from close range. Six goals in the first forty five and the game was so open we expected more of the same after the restart.
I thought we were the better side for the first ten minutes but just as I was beginning to think we might make a remarkable recovery, Baldwin tried to play a through ball down the middle to Honeyman. It was intercepted, fed out out to the Coventry right and after a couple of touches from the impressive Bakayako, he rolled the ball to Jordan Shipley whose run no-one had tracked and the number 26 powered home a sweet left foot drive from all of 25 yards. Had Chris Maguire or Max Power produced a similar effort we would have been singing their praises. As it was it was another hammer blow. Surely we didn’t have it in us to get back on level terms again.
But we did. Jack Ross had made a double substitution and it was the returning Aiden McGeady who found Max Power just outside the box. He went for placement rather than power (sorry but I couldn’t think of an alternative) and like Honeyman his shot took a deflection which sent Lee Burge the wrong way. This was already a remarkable game which might still go either way.
Some Coventry fans I was talking to on the walk back through the Sheepfolds admitted that they were expecting us to score every time we got the ball, which is an interesting perspective as although at four all we were hoping that would be the case, it was no surprise when we ended up on the wrong side of a nine goal contest. The final nail in the coffin came after another low cross from Charlie Wakefield on the right wing. Baldwin stretched, went down and failed to cut out the pass and although he got to his feet quickly, Flanagan also failed to deal with it as substitute Conor Chaplin took control and stuck it home. There would be no coming back from that one.
After the January transfer window we might have had a massive squad in League 1 terms but yesterday we were missing Rose, I mean Love (see comments), Matthews, James, Cattermole, Maguire, Watmore, McGeouch and Gooch. Have I missed anyone? Add to that Grigg and McGeady are not 100% and we are a bit stretched. Benji Kimpioka also came off the bench but showed his inexperience and also perhaps the manager’s desperation.
It wasn’t a good defensive performance, there’s no getting away from that but I’m not sure we had the right type of players to combat Coventry’s style of play. Hindsight is a marvellous thing and I’m left pondering whether or not we would have been better employing the lopsided flexible 3-4-1-2 system with Flanagan, Baldwin and Ozturk (who surely deserves a run out after recent events) in front of McLaughlin, Honeyman and Oviedo making up a back 5 when not in midfield, Power and Leadbitter sitting just in front of the back line with Morgan behind Grigg and Wyke, from those who were fit enough to start.
Automatic promotion is still in our own hands despite Barnsley, Portsmouth and Charlton all winning yesterday and in a way I am pleased we have three away games but none of those will be easy. We all knew that April would be a tough test after Wembley and we got off to a decent enough start with 7 points from 9 but we need a better performance on Good Friday against Doncaster to maintain the promotion push. Let’s hope we can get back to winning ways.
Ha’way the Lads.