Phil Smith analysis: The ‘r’ word raises its ugly head for Sunderland

George Honeyman in action for Sunderland against Cardiff.
George Honeyman in action for Sunderland against Cardiff.

Neil Warnock, a touchline dramatist long before Klopp and Conte made it hip, barely even celebrated.

It was a crucial early goal but one so simple, the Cardiff City boss seemed to be having difficulty believing it could happen.

The ball never touched the floor, headed on by Zohore, flicked on by Mendez-Laing and buried by Bryson.

Sunderland, with five defenders and two central midfielders, static and undone in just the seventh minute.

“Basic errors are killing us at the moment,” Simon Grayson said.

How did it come to this?

Ten new players, a different league, the same basic errors undermining Sunderland’s search for stability.

It took nine games, but Grayson found himself being asked the question that proved so toxic for David Moyes: Is this a relegation fight?

The Black Cats boss found a decent bridge between realism and bullishness. He remains confident it will get better when key players return, but will not allow his side to kid themselves they are too good for such a fate.

Certainly, there is no point shying away from the ‘r’ word.

Away from home, Sunderland’s record stands comparison to the league leaders, but, at the Stadium of Light, they have not even come close to finding a gameplan and system fit for purpose.

They were second-best again, against Cardiff. Their fightback from the half hour mark was impressive, but the game could have been long gone by then, with Cardiff quicker, more powerful and more purposeful.

Some of the players many assumed would shine at this level are being out-performed by their less-heralded opponents.

Cardiff’s midfield three may not be the most aesthetically pleasing, but their energy was irrepressible. Out wide, their quality was obvious. At the back, they were streetwise and resilient.

This is happeneing to Sunderland too often for it not to be a concern, for it to be something brushed off with talk of injuries.

Absentees were crucial, of course.

Grayson is quite right to assert that his side will improve when his creative players return. Right from the moment the teams were announced, this game looked like it would be a difficult one.

Despite some frustrating errors at the crucial moment, Aiden McGeady showed his quality on his return as a sub and getting wingers back will be crucial for the Black Cats boss.

The 5-3-2 Grayson surprisingly opted for again simply does not look a good fit for this squad of players, who always seem to be at their best when the game is opened up and, rather than going long from the back, they are able to get into good crossing positions.

This, ultimately, is where Sunderland are at.

Without their key creative players, they are a side who will struggle to get results. That goes for any team, but it is more pertinent for the Black Cats given that these players are ones who have not been able to put together a run of games for some time.

Their availability is crucial but cannot be relied upon.

So concerns over where this season will end are valid, even if there is a path to a recovery of sorts.

The fear is that by the time Grayson is able to call on a greater pool of attacking talent, significant damage will already have been done.

Sunderland have two games before the next international break to allay some of the fears that are becoming increasingly deep-rooted with each passing defeat.

The malaise of last season has proved harder to shake off than anyone imagined.

The right formula needs to be found before the ‘r’ word becomes all too regular again.