Sunderland have lost for the first time in 14 — now is not the time to panic
“Despite working some fantastic areas, we let them off the hook too many times with our poor quality crossing.”
Lee Johnson spoke as philosophically as usual after Sunderland’s 2–1 defeat at the hands of Charlton Atheltic at the Stadium of Light. His side wasted several opportunities early in the game which later proved crucial.
The defeat leaves Sunderland five points behind second-placed Peterborough, denting a massive blow to their automatic promotion hopes. Yet, for Johnson and his side, it was just one bump in a long journey to come.
Two key areas of Sunderland’s game under Johnson are A: the ferocious form of Charlie Wyke, and B: the ability to create numerous chances from wide areas. Frustratingly, both threats seem to be drying to a certain extent.
Nobody can take anything away from Wyke; his 22 league goals have been a driving force in Sunderland’s resurgence over the last three months. But Saturday’s game was his fourth without a goal, his last coming in the 2–0 victory away at Accrington Stanley.
His partner has changed a lot recently, too. Ross Stewart has come into the fold but Wyke often plays much better with Aiden O’Brien accompanying him. Lynden Gooch has even made cameos as a secondary striker. This inconsistency, alongside a slight drop in confidence, resulted in Wyke’s disappointing display against Charlton. He missed two or three guilt-edged chances where perhaps a month ago, he’d be celebrating his third hat-trick of the campaign.
Johnson lamented his side’s crossing in the defeat. Indeed the quality from wide areas cost Sunderland throughout. Aiden McGeady, who has been in red-hot form recently, struggled to put his mark on the game with Ian Maatsen marking him exceptionally.
“I remember eight or nine occasions in the second half where we really worked the ball in great areas, with men in the box and men getting across their marker,” Johnson explained as he rued some poor quality which usually sets Sunderland apart from most teams in the division.
“But we failed to deliver.”
Callum McFadzean was hooked by Johnson, perhaps more for his defensive woes rather than his attacking inefficiencies. Denver Hume came on to continue his return from a hamstring injury and, despite getting into some very encouraging areas on the left, he too struggled to find anyone but the omnipresent Ben Amos.
Jordan Jones also came off the bench in the second half as Johnson attempted to change the game. However, his performance didn’t add much value to a bad day at the office. He drifted inside too many times despite his main threat being his right-footed crossed from the byline.
Alongside the two major issues outlined with Sunderland’s attacking performance, they also conceded two very poor goals. The first a set-piece routine, in which multiple chaotic mistakes from Scowen and Burge resulted in Charlton taking the lead after half an hour.
They doubled their lead after the break when Alex Gilbey lost his man and poked the ball under Burge following a throw-in routine.
Sunderland’s impeccable defensive record is seeping away from them. They haven’t kept a clean sheet since the 1–0 win away at Bristol Rovers. Of course, this is caveated by the odd partnership at the heart of the defence. Luke O’Nien and Dion Sanderson have excelled regardless of their lack of experience. But the solidity was bound to crack at some point.
This is no criticism either; the pair have been reliable and both show the quality to play above League One level. Though Johnson must be thinking what if Willis or Wright never got injured.
Josh Scowen did pull one back with a header from the edge of the box, but Sunderland couldn’t push further to draw level.
Whilst some are beginning to despair at the thought of the play-offs, it is worth noting Sunderland have lost for the first time in 14 league outings, an unimaginable run just three months ago.
Further, referring to xG data provided by @XG_Data on Twitter, Sunderland narrowly lost a very close encounter. Had Wyke been at the races, it could have been a completely different story.
To paint the current picture in a different light, Sunderland’s xG has been much lower in recent weeks compared to at other points of the season.
Again this is not a criticism of Lee Johnson and Sunderland because they have made a conscious effort to put crosses into the box. Crosses are notoriously less likely to result in a goal than working the ball into the box. However with the quality of the crosses usually put into the box and Wyke’s form, it is an understandable tactic.
Sunderland have taken 11 points from their last six games, but referring to xG form, they have been expected to take just 9.9 points, leaving them 8th in the form table.
This is something that Johnson will be aware of and he has alluded to this in recent weeks.
He has been modest in victory when speaking to the media and has often pined for more from his team, referring to his “protocol.”
Johnson explained after the Bristol Rovers victory that he was “as frustrated I am delighted.”
He continued, “There’s a little bit of improvement to come from us. I’m not sure whether that’s the style of game or whether we just need to buck up a little bit.”
The truth is Sunderland have been on a simply sensational run since the beginning of February, in which they have been the best team in League One.
Performances have improved drastically and results followed; it is a testament to Johnson’s men that they find themselves in this position.
But there is little room for error after a dismal beginning to the season under Phil Parkinson. What otherwise would have been a regular slip-up which most teams can afford turned into a defeat that could derail Sunderland’s resurgence.
Under the new regime, there has been lots of hope and promise for Sunderland. One narrow defeat should not destroy the momentum of that with such high team spirit in the camp.
There isn’t much time to dwell on the defeat either, with a trip to Greater Manchester to face Wigan Athletic on Tuesday.
Automatic promotion is still in their hands due to games in hand over Hull and Peterborough, with Sunderland still to face the former. The 14-game unbeaten run was a rollercoaster ride but there is now little room for further error.