Despite being initially sceptical (or, more accurately, gutted) at Parkinson’s appointment to the manager’s role left vacant after the sacking of Jack Ross, the first couple of games showed that, whilst the football was unlikely to be pretty at least you would go to the match knowing what type of football was going to be played - and the players all seemed to know what their role was in a pretty basic set up.
Parkinson started - after a debut defeat at Wycombe - by putting as much energy as possible in the centre of midfield (Power and Dobson preferred over Leadbitter or McGeouch) and making those two players responsible almost exclusively for winning the ball back. Creativity was to come from the wide players who - with two attacking full backs - were asked to create chances for two forwards. Without Wyke as a target man it was as close to a traditional 4-4-2 as Sunderland could get at the time.
However, things have changed rather drastically for the worse and Phil Parkinson’s Sunderland have turned from a basic yet organised side into a team comprised of individuals who simply don’t suit the role they’ve been given and are drastically underperforming as a result.
The game against Gillingham is a perfect example of this - and within 30 seconds of the teams being released everyone - seemingly apart from Parkinson - could see that the eleven players picked were not suited to getting the job done. Sunderland were not oven ready and just needed popping in the microwave, they were a collection of out-of-date ingredients with a cook who had never set foot in the kitchen.
As you can see in the image above showing the average positions of the Sunderland players on Saturday afternoon, Sunderland played a 3-5-2 formation. However, the positioning of the players on the pitch shows just how unsuited this style was to the individuals at Parkinson’s disposal.
With Laurens de Bock and Conor McLaughlin as “wing backs” it seemed at 2 o’clock that Sunderland would be playing a genuine back five, with Leadbitter playing just in-front of this block of five and then two midfielders with the energy to get up and down the pitch to link the defensive section of Sunderland’s team with their two strikers.
It would be - as I mentioned earlier - an incredibly dull plan, and one I would have disagreed with... but at least it was a plan.
However, the positioning of Conor McLaughlin especially shows how Parkinson wasn’t even attempting to get the best out of the players at his disposal, he was seemingly picking eleven numbers out of a bag and coming up with some sign of a formation.
I like to think of Conor McLaughlin as a pauper’s Billy Jones, so bad going forward that people assume he must be good at defending - in fact he’s just below average at both and it just takes people a little while to accept this fact. Another similarity between McLaughlin and Jones is they’re both not wing-backs who can affect the pitch in the opposition half without a genuine winger in front of them.
Keeping this fact in mind, why on earth was Conor McLaughlin solely responsible for Sunderland’s attacking play down the right-hand side? If Parkinson wanted to keep things tight at the back by playing a lopsided five-man defence, then why not use Hume at left wing-back and use McLaughlin in the role de Bock was used in, a limited full back who doesn’t often have to venture past the half-way line?
It wasn’t only the full backs that Parkinson got so clearly wrong on Saturday afternoon, but his use of George Dobson - a player who demonstrated his limited ability going forward in Sunderland’s last home game against Burton Albion, and whose strength clearly lies in winning the ball back - in a more advanced position supporting Sunderland’s two strikers.
This just goes to show the absurdity of Parkinson’s choice of formation.
It didn’t suit the wing backs, it didn’t leave room for Leadbitter to drop between the centre halves and bring the ball out from the back, and it didn’t allow Sunderland to use width to compensate for their lack of creativity in the middle.
Simply put, Phil Parkinson’s Sunderland system was far too defensive for a game against a side in the lower-reaches of the third tier of English football. Where’s the ambition?