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Reaching Conclusions - when is the time right to judge Donald & Parkinson’s Sunderland ‘success’?

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Keir Bradwell gives a wonderfully articulated explanation for why he believes long-term thinking is needed when attempting to judge the success of Sunderland’s manager and owner.

Fleetwood Town v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Kevin Barnes - CameraSport via Getty Images

As anyone who has spent much longer than five minutes browsing an online football forum will realise, there is a great tendency amongst supporters of all sides to ground their views on very recent strings of results.

The shift in popular opinion on Phil Parkinson between Boxing Day (when an A Love Supreme poll on Twitter found 93.6% of supporters had lost faith in him), and two weeks later, after resounding victories over Lincoln and former league leaders Wycombe, illustrates this perfectly. Indeed, there must be many who, with Sunderland now sitting in the playoff places, six points away from the top of the table with a game in hand (and a managerial change beginning to pay off), are beginning to have doubts about the #DonaldOut campaign, something I felt was misguided from the beginning.

Yet every uptick in form, too, brings with it a degree of utopian thinking – a wave of confidence that the good times shall last; that the league table will sort itself out in the end.

As I see it, there are two fundamental problems with this recurring aspect of the football supporter psyche. One being technical and one being a question of considering the bigger picture. I would argue both have major consequences for how we ought to consider Stewart Donald’s tenure, and future, as owner.

Sunderland v Coventry City - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The first is that results can be misleading. Basing opinions on any given set of even four or five matches will inevitably conflate a team’s form with their actual underlying quality.

Such is the nature of the inherent variation in football that all sides go through runs of good and bad results (except, apparently, Liverpool) – but that doesn’t mean the sporting potential of the squad changes week-to-week, or that the players have suddenly regressed or improved from one week to the next. Rather, a run of unusually good form likely indicates a period of relative fortune; a run of poorer results the opposite.

Though many have reacted sceptically to the increasing role of statistical analysis in football, Expected Goals (xG) offers one way around this problem. Over the course of a season, one way to measure how good a side really is, is to measure the volume and quality of shooting chances created and conceded (eliminating the factor of finishing, which often hinges more on luck than quality).

Though public League One data is relatively scarce, the wonderful Experimental 3-6-1 blog keeps track of xG in the Football League, and finds that not only are our recent performances seemingly a case of genuine outperformance rather than pure finishing luck, we are lower in the league than the quality of our performances would seem to reflect.

The crucial lesson of this is that the result on any given match day is not always the best indicator of where we are relative to the rest of the league, nor how well we are likely to perform over the course of a season.

No metric offers a reliable guide to the latter – but it is worth considering how, over the course of the season, our ability to create shooting opportunities and prevent other teams from doing the same compares to the rest of the league.

Moreover, assessing trends in xG, too, is likely to be more helpful the longer the time frame in consideration – which should give us even more reason to be cautious before reaching a decision about whether Sunderland have genuinely got better or worse at any given time. Delineating between a hot streak of good form and genuine, inherent quality is difficult and imprecise at the best of times – but clearly an important endeavour, particularly when considering the future of the man in charge.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Even setting aside the question of the reliability of short sets of results as a measure of quality, our tendency to focus on recent performances at any given time risks missing the wider context of where Sunderland are – with mixed consequences for assessing the success of the current ownership.

On one hand, the club is reportedly debt free, financially sustainable, and, despite a number of relatively uninspiring signings, capable of outspending anyone else in the division. On the other, unless we finish this season very strongly indeed, over the past two years we may well have witnessed the club’s two worst finishes in its history, back-to-back.

What matters is that the former factors – our financial sustainability and our transfer budget – contribute to improvements in the latter, by turning the squad into something good enough to go up, and stay up. That, however, by its very nature, is a long term project – one that no one set of good or bad results can vindicate or discount.

Where, then, does this leave Sunderland, Parkinson, and Donald today?

The reality is that Sunderland are a good, if not outstanding, League One side. In a league currently devoid of persistently dominant sides, that may be enough to ensure promotion to the Championship. In that case, with the core ambition of this season fulfilled (as it so nearly was last campaign), it would be difficult to argue Parkinson and Donald have been anything but successful. If we fall short once again, debate ought to follow about why we have failed to capitalise on what appears to be an abnormally weak league, even given the tumultuous circumstance of managerial change mid-way through.

Crucially, our recent improvement in form (and, seemingly, quality) despite the abysmal run of early results under Parkinson towards the end of 2019 surely justifies a more general wait-and-see approach to assessing Sunderland’s performance.

Consequently, reaching conclusions on Donald’s tenure during the midst of the season, either after a run of bad results (as preceded the #DonaldOut campaign), or our recent much improved ones, is to make a fundamental mistake. Aside from all the practical problems involved with wanting a change in ownership mid-way through a season in the hope of improvement, only at the season’s end will we know whether the firefighting that has largely characterised Donald’s tenure so far, and his appointment of Phil Parkinson, have been sufficient. In the summer, let the post-mortem begin.