Making sense of another frustrating Sunderland afternoon and what we learned from it
Sunderland have suffered back-to-back Championship defeats
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Tony Mowbray said his side had created enough not to lose the game and in this statement there was both sympathy for his players and a fair amount of frustration.
It was a game that they ought not to have lost, and yet one in which it was hard to argue they had done enough to win.
Right up until the very last, Sunderland looked like they could could and should get something out of the game, against a Stoke City side far better than their league position suggests, and yet also quite clearly not at this moment one of the division’s very best.
Twice Adil Aouchiche fired over from close range, while one Dan Ballard header struck the post and bounced clear. Jack Clarke had what looked to be a strong claim for a penalty waved away with barely a minute left on the clock, and regularly cut into dangerous areas from the left flank.
Sunderland lost the game first and foremost because twice they started the half poorly, and twice they gave away soft goals. Both were given away in the air, the second from a corner and the first a long punt upfield that they did not deal with anywhere near enough. Luck most certainly was against them again in the key decisions, Ryan Mmaee seemingly using his arm to control the ball before firing that opener past Anthony Patterson.
Mowbray clearly felt that was the case, but was well aware that in both goals his side had been found wanting. He had spoken to his players about the physical test they would face here and though they would in time get to grips with it, in the opening moments of both halves they were off the pace and gifted up the initiative.
Mowbray has spoken in the past of his respect for Alex Neil, who he judges to be one of the very best around when it comes to coaching a side out of possession. Against that level of organisation you cannot give away the lead and expect to come out on top, especially not when you do it twice.
This was a stronger Stoke side than the one that had slumped to the edge of the relegation zone before the international break, without a doubt. Key players returning meant that here they had round pegs almost exclusively in round holes, with Enda Stevens and Kia-Jana Hoever both performing well against the talented wingers in front of them. Mmaee’s impact up front was reflected on the scoresheet, and you can be fairly sure that as a new side starts to gel this is a team that will start to inch up the table.
Mowbray tried to strike a balance in his post-match press conference, trying to explain why he felt his side were a touch off the pace whole trying not to excuse what was undoubtedly a disappointing performance in the main.
His preparation for this game has been challenging, even accounting for the return of a handful of key players from injury. Many players on international duty did not return until Friday and some not even them, leaving them theoretically with one just training session ahead of the trip. The issue here was that Storm Babet rendered that session far less effective than it might otherwise have been, leaving Mowbray of the mind that he had to go with the players who he had been able to work closely with earlier in the week.
This was the logic behind opting not to field a recognised striker, reinforced by the fact that Mason Burstow had twice played over the break and so some fatigue was inevitable.
Once Mowbray had made this decision, his decision was between operating with a false nine or handing a start to Luis Hemir. The head coach rates Hemir’s finishing ability and believes he can be a real penalty-box asset over time, but feels his fitness and rhythm is not yet up to the standard to execute what is required out of possession for this team.
So instead it was Pritchard and Roberts as the most advanced players and a game plan that as Mowbray fairly pointed out afterwards, delivered some impressive wins against high-calibre opposition on the road last season.
When Sunderland moved it well they looked dangerous, and yet there were inevitably spells in the game where that focal point who could give them an out ball was lacking. It is also clear that Roberts is not the same player operating in a central area, and he wasn’t anywhere near as threatening as he can be throughout a frustrating display here.
If this defeat did highlight one factor it was the difficult balance the head coach is facing in integrating the summer arrivals with the core of the side who have largely made an impressive start to the season.
The Black Cats ended the game essentially with no midfield and all three of those strikers on the pitch, and while Aouchiche again looked dangerous there is an understandable inconsistency elsewhere.
Mowbray cut a frustrated but calm figure afterwards, adamant that his side would get back up to speed as they get back to working with each other.
The small issue, of course, is that their next assignment is a trip to Leicester City - the side who have established themselves as the dominant force in this division and whose squad boasts Premier League talent on its bench, never mind in its starting XI.
That makes this game feel even more acutely as one that got away, the frustration of which may well grow in the days ahead.