After three consecutive cup games without a win - including two particularly embarrassing defeats against Leicester City’s under 21 side and Scunthorpe, a team now fighting relegation from League Two – the improvements in performance that we saw during the early games of Phil Parkinson’s reign seem to have disappeared, and results also have failed to pick up even if Sunderland were unlucky not to win more of the former Bolton manager’s first three or four games. With this in mind, and just under a fortnight to stew on things before the next league game, I attempted to look at what has gone wrong and what Sunderland have started doing differently in the last couple of poor performances.
Formations and Personnel
Perhaps the simplest place to start when looking at how Sunderland have started under Phil Parkinson is to look at the different players and formations he has used in each game. There is little doubt that Parkinson favours the 4-2-3-1 formation, and the midfield partnership of Dobson and Power seems to be his first choice within this formation. However, especially in the recent poor cup performances, Sunderland have played instead in a 4-3-3 formation with Leadbitter in the side instead of an attacking midfielder (vs Scunthorpe and his first game against Wycombe), as well as in a 3-1-4-1-1 formation for the first hour at Oxford. Despite playing in the preferred 4-2-3-1 formation against Leicester City’s under 21s, the second-string duo of Leadbitter and McGeouch started in the middle of the pitch.
On the face of it, it looks like this may be the main difference between Sunderland’s good performances under Parkinson, and their bad ones. And the Black Cats certainly look much better with Dobson and Power playing in a midfield two, however this does not explain the poor showings against Southend - despite the victory - and Gillingham - despite managing to avoid defeat - where Sunderland played both 4-2-3-1, and the first choice midfeld of Power and Dobson started together.
Duels and Tackles
As we look deeper into the stats from Sunderland’s games under Parkinson, the waters seem to muddy significantly. Looking specifically at the number of duels and tackles won - two metrics important at this level for any team who wishes to dominate the game - you can see that whilst they outline well Sunderland’s best and worst performances - the 66 duels won in their best performance against Tranmere was the highest under Parkinson, whilst the 44 duels won against Scunthorpe in their worst performance was the lowest - once you remove these two extreme result, Sunderland have actually been fairly consistent with the number of duels won under their new-ish manager.
The 64 duels won against Oxford, and the 60 duels won in the win - albeit a narrow one - over Southend, aren’t a great deal higher than the 57 duels won in the embarrassment against Leicester’s kids, a game in which Sunderland won more duels than against Shrewsbury, a game Sunderland were unlucky to lose.
Similarly, the number of tackles since Parkinson came in paints a similar picture. Again the Tranmere game shows Sunderland’s best performance in this stat (19) and the Scunthorpe game on Tuesday was the worst (9), but again in between these numbers, Sunderland have completed between 10 and 13 tackles in all of their games under Parkinson, despite both performances and results being mixed in these games.
I have to be honest, writing this has been quite a cathartic experience. I had originally been worried that Sunderland’s players had merely been working harder, winning more second balls and tackles and playing with a greater intensity in Parkinson’s early games and that “new manager bounce” had simply ended, and we had started losing duels against the opposition and failing to make an impact on the game.
However, looking at how all of Sunderland’s poor performances have came with at least one of Parkinson’s first choice midfield duo out of the team - and replaced by completely different types of player in the shape of Leadbitter and McGeouch - gives me the confidence that in the most poor of Sunderland’s performances, which have came mainly in the cups, Parkinson has been looking for a way of playing without one of these players, and having failed to find it shows that this may be an area he looks for reinforcements in January - whether this be by recalling Ethan Robson, or a new signing.
Overall, take out the recent cup disappointments and Sunderland’s performances haven’t been as bad as results suggest, and if Parkinson can use these recent experiments to perfect his Sunderland side it’s entirely possible that he can get a few more wins, and relieve some pressure from both himself and his team.
All statistics are from InStat Football - http://instatsport.com/football