Everyone understands their role
In nearly every Sunderland game I watched over the two seasons prior to the current one, I felt annoyed by the fact that nobody seemed to know what their job was on the pitch.
Last season was particularly difficult to stomach - under Simon Grayson we attempted to play long ball football with a side largely made up by slow, small players, and then under Chris Coleman we persisted with a defensive 5-3-2 system that got the best out of absolutely nobody.
It’s nice, then, that we can watch a Sunderland team now where every player knows what their role is on the pitch - that much is evident in the way that we play, and the results that we’ve been able to achieve.
There’s no more shoehorning players into positions they aren’t suited to playing, and we’ve stopped confusing our best attackers by asking them to play a different role every week.
They’ve been given a job and it’s down to them to not only develop within it, but also own it and realise that they are just one cog in the machine - for everything to work they must do their job to the best of their ability.
I’ve been a Sunderland supporter for many years, and through all that time I don’t think I’ve enjoyed watching a defender with the ball at his feet more than I do when I see Jack Baldwin play.
Traditionally it’s accepted that a defender’s job is to head and clear the ball away once there’s even a slight sniff of danger, and I subscribe to that too most of the time, but there’s just something about the way Jack Baldwin plays that I really, really love.
I can’t remember too many Sunderland defenders in recent years where you could say safely that their greatest asset was their ability to play out from the back. We tried it briefly under Gus Poyet but, in the Premier League with players that are limited in their ability, it’s tough to expect a Sunderland team to be able to successfully break teams down with a style where you ask your central defenders to bring the ball forward and start off our attacks.
In League One, though, we have more quality than most of the teams we face and this means we’re able to play a style of football that suits the best attributes of a player like Baldwin.
His pass which helped to create Sunderland’s first goal against Rochdale is perhaps the greatest example of this that I can give - Baldwin enjoys putting the ball into areas where our attackers can become dangerous, and as part of a back three that makes him an incredibly valuable asset to our team.
The dynamism of our attack
This kinda bleeds into my point about Baldwin, but I just love the way our forward line interchanges and each player seems completely in tune with the others.
The front four of Chris Maguire, George Honeyman, Lynden Gooch and Josh Maja have played together consistently since pre-season began, and it’s keeping them together on the pitch that I think will be key to whatever success me manage to achieve this season.
It’s heartening that three of those four players mentioned are products of our academy too, which of course is yet another reason to be proud. After all, there’s nothing better than watching your best young players make their way through the youth teams into the senior side together, playing regularly and making up a part of what is a hard-working and potent attack.
As mentioned earlier, Sunderland are playing a far more expansive brand of football this season and it’s nice to see our forward players really take the game to our opponents. There’s a clear understanding between our attacking foursome and it’s the reason why Josh Maja is the joint top scorer in the league, and why Lynden Gooch is the joint top assist maker.
At his best Chris Maguire is devastating, and he was truly at the heart of everything that Sunderland did well on Saturday against Rochdale. George Honeyman, whilst he has detractors, always works hard and makes himself available for the ball.
Maguire and Honeyman are the clear link between all of our attacking players, and adding a blend of ingenuity and quality helps to make everything tick.
All of Saturday's goals against Rochdale were well-worked team efforts.— Roker Report (@RokerReport) September 26, 2018
1: Hume > Baldwin > Maguire > Maja > GOAL!
2: Maguire > Maja > Gooch > Penalty > GOAL!
3: Honeyman > Hume > Maja > GOAL!
4: Honeyman > Maguire > Gooch > GOAL!@SunderlandAFC | #SAFC ⚪️ pic.twitter.com/sknwoY1EcK
Having a confident goalkeeper
Fans of other clubs probably think we’re pathetic, but isn’t it nice to have a goalkeeper that can do the basics, like claiming crosses and occasionally making a decent save or two?
With Jason Steele and Lee Camp now banished to a land far from Wearside, Jon McLaughlin has stepped up to the plate to become Sunderland’s number one stopper and is showing us exactly why he was the most highly-rated goalkeeper in the Scottish Premiership last season.
He’s not got anywhere near the amount of clean sheets he would have perhaps liked at this stage, but like many of our other new players he’s steadily improving and settling into life as a Sunderland player.
Recruiting a good goalkeeper with experience at this level was one of the most important transfers we had to make in the summer, and in McLaughlin we’ve probably got the safest pair of hands in the league. It’s nice to be able to say that.
The fact they’re just decent people
Max Power picking fans up from a bus stop on the way to the game, giving them a lift through in his motor. Bali Mumba going back to his junior club, Hebburn Town, to present trophies to the kids. Lynden Gooch and Duncan Watmore visiting a young fan at his home for his birthday. Charlie Wyke and Tom Flanagan heading across to coach kids at the Beacon of Light.
There are probably tonnes of other occasions where similar stuff has gone on since the summer, but with our drop into the third tier appears to have came a realisation that fans and players can actually mingle, and that there should be a healthy relationship between them on and off the pitch.
Long may it continue.
So this happened tonight. @lyndengooch46 and Duncan watmore rocking up at the house for an early birthday surprise for @AdamAdamsafc12 with a signed card. Totally overwhelmed 2 lovely lads. Thank u so much to @stewartdonald3 and @CWaters_SAFC for making this happen. Unbelievable pic.twitter.com/dtuKNKOwt8— leanne (@leannesafc4life) September 25, 2018