Sunderland suffered a minor setback in their bid for an immediate Championship return when they only managed a point against 12th placed Wycombe on Saturday.
But it could have been a lot worse for Jack Ross’s side who snatched a late equaliser courtesy of Duncan Watmore after struggling to assert themselves at Adams Park.
They must now recover in time for an enormous trip to second-placed Barnsley on Tuesday night, after their frailties were laid bare on the weekend when Wycombe successfully nullified the Black Cats’ game plan.
Ross’s side have often attempted to launch attacks from deep this season, with midfielders drifting deep to collect the ball from the defence.
Gareth Ainsworth detected this tendency ahead of their meeting and subsequently encouraged his side to press with vigour from the first whistle.
Sunderland’s back line has delivered solid performances in recent weeks which led to three straight clean sheets before Saturday’s encounter, but the defence’s limited ball-playing abilities were exposed on Saturday.
The likes of Jimmy Dunne and Tom Flanagan struggled to cope as Ainsworth ordered his attacking unit of Alex Samuel, Nathan Tyson and Luke Bolton to close them down when in possession. This prevented Sunderland from transitioning the ball through midfield and led to a disjointed Black Cats performance.
Wycombe’s front three worked tirelessly to enforce this and the strategy worked for Ainsworth’s side who led for over an hour before Watmore’s late strike.
Given the success of Wycombe’s strategy, Sunderland must learn to adapt their style in order to yield results even when the back line is put under pressure.
This could involve improving their long-ball strategy which seemed non-existent at Adams Park. It is also vital that the likes of Aiden McGeady, George Honeyman and Lewis Morgan are effective in their use of the ball whenever it does get forward.
In the long term, the club would benefit from recruiting defenders with a wider skill set to provide Ross with ranging options in defence. This is something that cannot be fixed overnight, but should be addressed whether Sunderland return to the Championship or not.