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Credit where it’s due - what has Phil Parkinson done to change Sunderland’s fortunes around?

I’m holding my hands up — Phil Parkinson appears to have got a fair bit right since he came in as Sunderland manager, despite being under immense pressure. What has he done to change our fortunes around over the last four games?

Sunderland Unveil New Manager Phil Parkinson Photo by Sunderland AFC/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Before I start, I think that it’s important to establish a few things.

I, like many other supporters, wanted Phil Parkinson to leave earlier in the season - something that I still stand by. The team went almost two months without winning a game, the style of football was desperate, the players didn’t appear to be buying into his methods, and we were tumbling down the table. To the fans turning up to watch the team play, it appeared that we were regressing rapidly, and that our chances of gaining promotion were slipping away faster than you can say “League Two”. It’s no surprise that we were quick to write him off, particularly with a transfer window - and potentially the opportunity to rescue the situation - looming.

Thankfully, Parkinson has managed to flip things on its head over the space of four games. Where the rest of the league have stood still, Sunderland have kicked on, and we’ve almost caught up with the teams at the top - rather amazing when you remember just how long we went without winning a game at the turn of the year.

I’m still not quite sure whether Parkinson is definitely the man to get Sunderland back into the Championship, but I feel he’s certainly earned himself a proper stab at getting us promoted, having got things back into shape under immense pressure.

Nobody wants to see Phil Parkinson become a success here more than me. If he’s successful, we’re successful, and ultimately that is all that matters.

Identified dressing room issues

There were a few eyebrows raised - mine included - when news emerged that Aiden McGeady, arguably our most talented player, had been told he could leave the club.

Citing irrefutable dressing room issues, the local news reports indicated that the Republic of Ireland international winger had become a serious problem - some downfall after cementing himself as our most important out-field player last season with a string of match-winning displays.

McGeady was Jack Ross’s ‘golden boy’, and the former Sunderland gaffer effectively built his team around McGeady in order to accommodate him. It wasn’t sustainable, though, and whenever McGeady had a bad game you could almost certainly guarantee that the team as a whole would suffer as a result.

Nothing much has been confirmed about what went on between Parkinson and McGeady, but it’s no coincidence that since he was dropped, the team as a whole have started working better with one another. It was a brave, principled move, but the signs so far indicate that dropping McGeady from the squad altogether has been a wise decision.

The players certainly seem more united, and as a major influence in the dressing room the continued omission of McGeady appears to be bringing out leadership qualities in players who previously haven’t displayed many, if any at all.

Max Power, Jordan Willis, Luke O’Nien and even Chris Maguire appear more invested, more invigorated and relishing the opportunity to shoulder the extra responsibility that comes with key figures being removed from the team.

All good teams - particularly lower down the leagues - are greater than the sum of their parts, and that appears to be something recognised very early into Parkinson’s tenure. There’s no room for egos if Sunderland are to be successful, and if that means dropping cynical older players in favour of younger, harder working yet less glamourous types then so be it.

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

Improved our fitness

I was told in a conversation early on into Parkinson’s tenure that one of the things he identified in his initial interview with the club was the fact our players simply weren’t fit.

And it’s not really difficult to see how, or why - after all, we didn’t really have a proper pre-season and only played a small handful of games before league action kicked back off.

In came Nick Allamby on the 8th of November - the fitness coach who had previously worked under Parkinson at Bradford and Bolton, with the remit to get the squad fit.

The return from injury of Charlie Wyke and Lynden Gooch, coupled with an increase in fitness from the squad as a whole, has led to some improved performances. We’re playing at a higher tempo, blowing teams away earlier in games due to the fact we’re able to sustain our energy and performance levels right throughout the ninety minutes.

It’s a good position to be in going into the latter stages of the season, and with increased fitness should come fewer injuries, more wins and more performances that have the energy we expect from Sunderland’s teams, particularly in home games.

Sunderland v Bolton Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Photo by Alex Dodd - CameraSport via Getty Images

Established a style of play

One of my biggest criticisms of Jack Ross during his tenure as manager was that I never felt Sunderland had any sort of identity on the pitch with him in charge.

Finally, in the summer, it appeared that he was making moves to address the issue. We saw the introduction of a 3-5-2 system in the few pre-season games we did play, producing largely disappointing results. After a poor start to the season, Ross reverted into his shell and went with what he knew - and it proved ineffective, ending with him losing his job.

In the first six weeks or so of Phil Parkinson’s reign it was clear he too had no clear plan for what style we were going to implement on the pitch, but the improvement we’ve seen in the last four matches has been in no short part down to the fact he’s stuck by a style of play, and attempted to produce some consistency by selecting largely the same side in each game.

Overlapping central defenders, wing backs effectively playing like attacking midfielders, central attackers working box to box and getting close to the striker, overloading from wide areas - it’s safe to say that Sunderland’s recent success has come largely as a result of everyone knowing their jobs, working hard within it and playing at a higher tempo.

My colleague Phil Butler has already done a fantastic job of breaking down Sunderland’s style of play in his post-Wycombe edition of Talking Tactics, which I urge you all to read.


Remained calm

It can’t be easy to keep your cool when everything you read and hear is fans demanding you should lose your job, whether they’re right or not. This is where I think Parkinson’s experience has showed, and he’s repeatedly said he avoids reading stuff about himself in the media and online. Fair play.

Perhaps he was reassured that his job was safe, and that he’d have the time it takes to turn things around, which of course will have given him some breathing room.

Regardless, I feel like he deserves credit for not caving in to the pressure, because I know that I would have. There will undoubtedly be tough times ahead - nobody is expecting the rest of this season to be plain-sailing - but you have to hope that Parkinson has ridden through the toughest period of his stint as Sunderland manager already.

I’m not suggesting for one minute that he’s the best man for the job, but he certainly has earned himself the opportunity to stretch his legs. He’s eradicated a number of problems that were plaguing the side, and now has a shot at doing what he was brought in to do - achieve promotion back to the Championship at the first time of asking.

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