Phil Smith's Sunderland analysis: Long-term issues of lack of pace and quality come to the fore again for Black Cats
The honeymoon is well and truly over.
Less than a fortnight after finally ending their home hoodoo and moving clear of the Championship relegation zone, Sunderland are struggling at the basement again.
They were woeful here yesterday, only slightly better organised than when hammered 5-2 at Ipswich earlier in the season, but in possession arguably worse than they ever been have in a difficult season.
Right from the off, boss Chris Coleman cut a concerned figure on the touchline.
Simple passes were blazed into touch, Sheffield United finding it all too easy to move their way through the midfield.
The Black Cats were fortunate to get to half-time trailing only by one goal.
Before the game, a calf injury to Lewis Grabban left most wondering whether this would be a glimpse into the future, with Bournemouth considering a January recall for Sunderland’s top scorer.
By the end, their problems looked to be far bigger than one centre-forward.
There were one or two moments when the 29-year-old’s movement might have better exploited James Vaughan’s flick-ons, but, for the most part, they were utterly abject, inferior in every department of the pitch.
Once Sheffield United improved the speed of their attacking in the second half, a rout seemed inevitable.
Coleman may perhaps rue his decision not to make changes at the break, with Aiden McGeady offering little in a central role and the midfield behind him badly short on legs and quality after a testing period of games.
Sunderland were reduced to playing long balls to James Vaughan, but it was far too easy for the back three to mop up and they registered only a handful of shots before the game was already lost.
The need for fresh legs seemed clear, but, by the time they arrived, the damage was already done.
United took the lead when Marc Duffy played the ball across the box, evading everyone apart from John Lundstram, who slotted home at the far post.
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Duffy was again involved for the second, curling a free-kick into the box which found Richard Stearman, who powered a header home.
Minutes later and United had a third, Leon Clarke laying the ball back for Jack O’Connell to cross to George Baldock, who headed into the roof of the net.
Coleman has been missing a number of senior players since his arrival on Wearside and for the first time it really showed.
The young duo of George Honeyman and Lynden Gooch struggled and looked tired, while Darron Gibson’s groin injury left him ineffective in the extreme behind them in midfield.
Lundstram and Duffy were purposeful and impressive in the central areas for the home side, but were faced with precious little resistance when they glided towards goal.
It could have been more and, in the end, Sunderland will perhaps be thankful that results elsewhere did generally fall in their favour.
If the need for strengthening when the window opens in a matter of days was not already apparent, then it is crystal clear now.
Coleman will be hoping that this abject performance was an outlier given the general improvements we have seen since he took charge at Villa Park.
Given their position in the league table, and the way they struggled to contain lowly Birmingham last week, however, he will know that certainly cannot be taken for granted.
Much of what he has done since that narrow defeat to Aston Villa has helped to mitigate the clear lack of pace and creative quality in the squad, but those long-term issues to the fore once more.
Having attracted him to the Stadium of Light, it now falls to Martin Bain and Ellis Short to provide him with what he needs next month to steer the Black Cats away from the bottom three.
His points tally now reads eight from seven games and, while an obvious improvement, that rate may not be enough to keep them from a disastrous successive relegation.
He has shown the ability to motivate and organise his players in most games, and now he needs an injection of quality however he can get it.