Phil Smith analysis: Distressing, directionless Sunderland performace
Right from the start, when Sunderland launched the kick-off into the stands, allowing Sheffield United to take the ball and feel their way into the game, this was a distressingly directionless performance.
The pride and tentative sense of rebirth that followed the opening night draw with Derby, a front foot performance of bravery and vigour, has evaporated now.
This was the trademark 2017 Stadium of Light display, predictable and static, on and off the ball.
Little spark, little incision, little discipline.
These displays are one thing against the Manchester City and Manchester United’s, of this world, they are quite another against the middling sides of the second tier.
Sheffield United were impressive, disciplined and tenacious. Their organisation was evident, and they deserved the win.
Like Leeds, however, they did little but let Sunderland have the ball, trusting they would soon get it back and that when they did, there would be spaces to attack. So it proved.
These are early days in the season and overreactions should always be warned against, but faith dwindles fast after a season like the last and with Nottingham Forest arriving in less than 48 hours, an improvement is simply a must.
This must be the nadir of this Sunderland side’s journey, the early low watermark from which greater resilience was born. There are too many who have been too ground down by what they have seen of late, and they cannot be expected to keep coming back for more.
There has been critcism of the set-up and certainly, it did not work.
With debutants and players returning from international duty just before this game, to opt for a radically different shape was odd and Sunderland were disjointed throughout.
Particularly evident was Sunderland’s lack of dynamism in the wing-back areas, a demanding, specialist position in which George Honeyman and Brendan Galloway understandably struggled.
With no width in the side, no runners getting near the byline, Sundelrand resorted to aimless long balls and with James Vaughan struggling to make any impact in the air against Sheffield United’s three man defence, it made for particularly turgid fare.
An injury to Lamine Kone seemed to present an obvious opportunity for change at half-time but as it was there was none, the game as good as gone by the time Callum McManaman arrived. It is true that Sunderland failed at the basics here, unable to compete off the ball or set any kind of tempo on it, but they were not helped by a gameplan that seemed hard to decipher at times.
McManaman’s display, brave and direct, offered some cause for optimism and the Black Cats will certainly be a different prosect when they have the winger and Aiden McGeady in the same side.
Jonny Williams, too, showed a desire to get on the ball and look forward that will serve his side well.
It will offer little consolation to Sunderland fans at the moment but Grayson came through a similar patch at Preston last season before his signings began to make a sustained difference to the performances and the results.
Sunderland’s new arrivals all spoke of the size of the club and their pride at signing, but they will now realise that after last season there is tension in the air and they will have to find their feet quickly.
Their manager and their club cannot afford many more days like this, lifeless and acrimonious both at once.