The three issues Sunderland simply must address to avoid damaging Millwall defeat

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The Black Cats travel to The Den on Saturday hoping to avoid a third successive Championship defeat.

I was, regrettably, at the Stadium of Light on Wednesday evening. In fact, I left at least three of my toes and a considerable chunk of my sanity in the East Stand, such was the bitterness of the Wearside squall and the inanity of the football on display, respectively. For those of you who fall into the category of 'blissfully ignorant', just know that Sunderland had 77% possession, 27 shots, and yet still somehow lost 2-1 to a Huddersfield Town side who, like a herd of cocky ibex, continue to reside in a perilously precarious position above a near-vertical drop. It was, at the risk of paraphrasing Fred Durst, just one of those games.

From the first whistle there was an air of shadow-puppetry about Sunderland's neat passages of toothless foreplay; as aesthetically pleasing as it was in fleeting stints, this was a performance that was ultimately good for little more than two-dimensional distraction, and when the visiting Terriers shone a light directly at the Black Cats, all pretences of substance vanished entirely. Huddersfield's opener was a bundled mugging of a goal, and their second, unexpected as it came, was a consequence of the kind of farcical slapstick that even Laurel and Hardy might have dismissed as being a little too on the nose for general release.

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That midweek train wreck now means that Sunderland have recorded back-to-back Championship defeats against clubs in the bottom third of the table, and another stumble of that ilk against Millwall this weekend will only serve to further chill a pervasive mood that is already beginning to feel frostier than your humble scribe's extremities were on the Metro home a couple of nights ago.

But how, exactly, can the Black Cats hope to avoid a shambolic trifecta at The Den? If I knew that for definite, I'd be the one sporting a Hugo Boss gilet and scranning Jaffa Cakes in pre-match press conferences, but it seems to me that there are some fairly obvious ways that Tony Mowbray can up the ante in East London.

First of all, Sunderland must not be afraid to vary the range of their distribution. There were far too many occasions on Wednesday night where the Black Cats got bogged down in a quagmire of their own design, passing their way into confined spaces and blind alleys before being forced to turn back on themselves and start again. The most frustrating side effect of this was an absurd amount of possession with very little territorial gain.

Of the 723 attempted passes Sunderland made against Huddersfield, just 37 were long balls. And worse still, in the rare moments that they did decide to switch flanks or test the opposition with a hopeful lump in behind, they actually ended up looking more dangerous for it. With Jack Clarke and Patrick Roberts both stationed out wide with chalk on their boots, there is hardly ever a point at which a decent outlet is not available, and yet far too often, Mowbray's side get caught trying to thread their way through a dense maze of limbs and baying defenders.

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That, in turn, brings me to a second point; it is almost as if Sunderland have forgotten how to play with a recognised centre forward. Last season, hamstrung by injuries and underwhelming loan agreements, the Black Cats ended up staggering their way to the play-offs with an attack that rarely boasted anything remotely like a proper striker. And yet, now with four proper options at Mowbray's disposal, the Mackems are somehow worse off.

Eliezer Mayenda was the unfortunate candidate leading the line in midweek, but Luis Hemir, Nazariy Rusyn, and Mason Burstow have all met similarly fruitless fates in the early knockings of the campaign. Incredibly, the last time that a recognised striker - not including the indefinable Joffy Gelhardt - scored a goal for Sunderland was January 22nd, some 41 matches ago.

And the need to find somebody who can consistently put the ball in the back of the net is becoming more apparent with every passing setback. Of the eight defeats Sunderland have suffered already this season, they have only recorded a worse xG than their opponents on two occasions; once against Middlesbrough when they played 45 minutes with 10 men, and once against league leader Leicester City, who eclipsed them by just 0.29.

A lot of these shortcomings would be aided by the emergence of a reliable goalscorer, but for that to happen, there has to a greater emphasis on quality service into an attacking focal point. Just three (again, out of 723) of Sunderland passes on Wednesday were deemed 'smart' pieces of distribution by stats aggregator Wyscout, and just one of those was accurate. It is, to be blunt, not good enough.

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There are problems at the back too. Sunderland may have the joint-fifth best defence in the Championship, but they still look alarmingly vulnerable from set-pieces and balls into the box. There is too much hesitation, too little physicality to properly cope with the rigours of a desperate aerial bombardment. I appreciate that there is no point crying over spilt milk, but how they have missed Danny Batth at times in recent weeks.

And that uncertainty is bleeding into other, supposedly routine moments as well. Quite how Huddersfield's Delano Burgzorg was the first man to seize upon the loose ball that led to his eventual winner at the Stadium of Light is genuinely beyond me. It's like an optical illusion or Tom Cruise's middle tooth - I look at it and I look at it, but it just does not compute in my weary little brain.

Granted, there is an intangibility to these casual lapses, but Sunderland, as a defensive unit, need to be sharper, more dialled in, more confident in their own ruthlessness. Whether or not Mowbray can instil any of those things in a browbeaten side before the snug turnaround of yet another Saturday 3pm kick-off, I'm not sure. Whether Millwall, like many before them, will set out to stifle and suffocate until any semblance of a Mackem plan goes out of the window and the Black Cats can be picked off against the run of play, as is becoming the norm, I don't know. But whatever happens this weekend, and indeed, in weekends to come, something has got to give on Wearside.

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