Alex Neil makes telling admission after Sunderland's draw with Burton Albion
The Black Cats were heading for another dismal defeat against Burton Albion when Ross Stewart scored a last-minute header to secure a point, but it was another disappointing result and performance for a side winless in six and in need of positive momentum.
Neil had made some significant changes in the aftermath of the 2-1 defeat to MK Dons on Saturday afternoon, moving to a back three in search of extra defensive protection.
Jermain Defoe partnered Ross Stewart up front and though Sunderland started well, they regressed significantly towards half time.
Neil said he was ‘extremely frustrated’ that key failings continue to recur despite his tinkering, most notably his team’s vulnerability to the counter attack.
“I'm learning more about the group every day,” Neil said.
“One of the things which was a constant tonight, which was a concern for me, we changed the shape to get an extra defender behind the ball to make sure we didn't get countered on and we did countered on.
“That was extremely frustrating because by putting that extra defender in, you hope to safeguard against that but some our quality and some of our decision making really let us down.
“First 30 minutes, I thought the balance of our play was good but then one moment changes the game. Their striker gets the ball, turns it around the corner and they get in behind us. To be fair, apart from the lad's poor touch that could have been a real problem for us.
“That then totally changed the momentum. I don't know if it's the youthfulness of the squad, not coping with those type of moments, we just don't react well.
“It's so frustrating because we probably had ten moments, they had one and it was that one that totally changes the match.
“We had a good discussion at half time then the goal sums it. We collect the ball, punt it up when we're 5v3 in our own half, and within the two passes they get a shot on our goal. It's absolutely naivety, we don't do the basics well enough and it's as simple as that.”
Sunderland’s issues are reflected in the fact that despite there being a significant number of talented wingers in the squad, few are getting the opportunity to impress for extended periods.
Leon Dajaku and Patrick Roberts were unused substitutes on Tuesday night, while Jack Clarke and Elliot Embleton again missed out on the starting XI.
Explaining his conundrum and his decision not to start any of the quartet, Neil said: “We lost the game on Saturday because of two transitions against us.
“At this moment in time, that is a real problem for us.
“So you can either fix it structurally, and to be honest we were in the right positions on Saturday, we just didn't defend well enough, and even tonight we had enough behind the ball to deal with it really.
“The one where the young lad comes on up front and gets through, we've got 2v1. They just clear the ball and within two touches he's running through on goal.
“That should not happen at any level really, never mind this level.
“It's decision making. The problem we've got is, we've spoken about lads who have played too much football, when you're fatigued it affects everything you do. Your decision making on and off the ball becomes sloppy, you start to gamble because you don't want to run, and you get caught out of position.
“I thought tonight as well, you could see that when we were searching for a goal towards the end of the pitch and it becomes stretched, we don't look as if we can get about the pitch enough to make that count.
“There's a few things that certainly need fixing.
“I need to find solutions and I'm trying to do that. I changed it again tonight to see if we could go about in a different way, but the same issues are still rearing their head.
“It's back to the drawing board for me, and I need to try and come up with something that can give us a platform to go and win the games.”
Clarke again impressed from the bench, as he has done regularly since his arrival on loan from Tottenham Hotspur in January.
It was the 21-year-old’s persistence and ball-carrying ability that led to the late equaliser, Alex Pritchard building on his good work to cross for Stewart at the back post.
Neil said Clarke had ‘definitely’ given him a dilemma as he weighs up what changes to make to his side when the Black Cats travel to Wigan Athletic on Saturday afternoon.
“Definitely,” Neil said.
“If we had played a different shape than Jack would have had a great claim to play.
“Tonight we played with two centre forwards and I've only got two in the building at the moment. The wingers suffer off the back of that, and Lynden [Gooch] is probably the one best suited to play in that sort of wing-back role.
“That's why we went down that route.”
Wycombe Wanderers’ defeat against Wigan Athletic means that Sunderland have returned to the play-off places for the time being, but Gareth Ainsworth’s side have played one game less.
Sheffield Wednesday, also one point behind Neil’s side, have an additional two games to play.