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Is “winning ugly” OK? Is it OK to feel unsure about our club’s footballing displays right now?

League points are no doubt welcome, but troops are uneasy on the performances, and we are all apprehensive how long the points average will stick around. Are we reasonable being concerned, even if points keep coming?

Rochdale v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Is Phil gathering all these points by luck, or by guile?
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Getty Images

Over the past few weeks we have seen all kinds of performances from SAFC (other than stellar, which is sadly yet to arrive). It has to be said that the points tally after 10 league games (21) with a league game in hand on three of the five teams above us would likely have been taken with open arms back in mid September, as we restarted our footballing journey as sofa based fans amid Covid-riddled Britain.

At a high level, the run of games and the points return from them look better than many would have expected. But was the way we got there okay, and why am I (and others) feeling iffy about what should be a positive position, just under a quarter of the way through this league season? If anything, part of the reason for the Mackem confidence wobbling so early has been that we are primarily consistent only in our inconsistency.

After a good opening cup performance versus newly relegated Hull, which in my view we dominated well but lost due to failing to convert chances and going to penalties, we then had a poor start to the league in only getting a draw. This being at home to a Bristol team we would have hoped to beat, and arguably would have if not for an error/bad decision at the back, our first couple of games wasn’t a great start.

After that, we went on a run of 5 clean sheets in the league, including beating potential promotion rivals like Peterborough (which could easily have been a draw for me), and Oxford United. The wins against Charlton and Oxford were more convincing and dominant games for the lads for me, and at that point my optimism was becoming stronger, and I know I wasn’t alone.

Whatever your tenure as a Sunderland fan, we all have an expectation for a bad result or two to come along eventually... sadly that happens especially often very late in a season, when we really need the points to finish strong.

Sunderland v Portsmouth - Sky Bet League 1 Photo by Robert Smith/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Against Pompey at home and Rochdale away, Nemesis clobbered Hubris, pride came before a fall... whatever phrase you want to use, you can just insert it as we had a couple of those games. We “lost our way a little” some said, giving away 5 points from 6.

A mixture of sloppy defence, slack pressing and untidy passing rounded off with poor tactics execution/dodgy tactics in general gave us a visible dip. Optimism was checked, as it is regularly being who we are. Admittedly, dropped in between the above games we had a couple of big goal tallies, but only against Pizza based (sorry) cup opponents like Carlisle, and Villa’s kids, for whom I felt more sorry with every goal past 3-0.

Since then, we have put plasters on our scabby knees and got back on the Chopper, winning away with another clean sheet at Gillingham, and beating second place Ipswich at home, in a poor (and frankly odd) game for me, but one which I feel we just shaded as reflected in the 2-1 score.

So, despite the league points and the games being against who they were, and ignoring the fact we can score 8, but only against kids younger than all of my own, there is a lot of chatter about performance in fan forums, support groups and even in letters we get at Roker Report. This got me thinking (and apologies for stealing the “Last Leg” strap line), “Is it ok to win ugly and feel disappointed with that?”

This discussion could go on for some time over a few beers (in the local pub which is presently closed), because there are many perspectives to consider.

Let’s look at a couple of them.

The Sky Bet League One Play Off Final Trophy. Sniff. Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

“Points matter, period. Promotion is all that counts!”

I have heard this said from many a fan and friend, including our mate Barnesy in a recent item he wrote. While I would agree with that in part, the concern is that the team are riding their luck a lot right now, grinding out wins when on other occasions they would have been draws (ahem, Mr Ross) or even losses. If the results were regular and assured wins, as they were for some of our early clean sheet run, we’d take that with way less questions bouncing around in our minds. We know what good football looks like.

As an “older” member of the RR team, I can’t even criticise the basic but at times effective strategy that Phil is alleged to be using.

I’m old enough to remember Arsenal bossing the top level for some time to the tune of “1-0 to the Arsenal” sung loudly from the terraces. The difference between these two situations is that Arsenal did that with a convincing and often impenetrable defence, accompanied by high possession stats. If you have a strong defence and don’t give away the ball very often, 1-0 can be enough. When we have lost or drawn thus far, or even let in goals in the Papa John cup, from memory it has involved at least 1 or 2 errors, and often unforced ones (though at home to Pompey in league one, their pressing being better than ours was a big factor).

If we can stop the errors and be better in possession while maintaining our tight back line, then argument is all we need to do is keep Wyke, Maguire, Gooch, Leadbitter or others nicking a goal or forcing a mistake resulting in a penalty (or Maguire-esque free kick) and OK, the points can be ours with low goal tallies supported by clean sheets.

So how good are we at this strategy so synonymous with Parkinson? Based on the points, who could argue we aren’t doing OK? It’s all about how well this points average can be maintained, and can be sustained for the arrival of our main competitors and fellow top-six hopefuls. If we lose points to those we need to climb above end of season, the top 2 places are out of our hands.

That’s nothing but simple maths - win/draw the same amount of games as Ipswich for example, but fail to take equal points at least in games against them, and you are below them. That said, right now we are the only team to have lost only once since the season began. Unlike under Ross, that isn’t due to us being draw specialists, as with 3 draws we are about average. Are we now 1-0 specialists? Would we accept being that?

Only time will tell.

What about the other often heard point going round right now?

“Sunderland won’t go up playing like this... the football is poor and hard to watch, and this run won’t last against quality opponents. When the opposition turn up, we have no plan B”

If you take the performances against Portsmouth and Ipswich, you sort of have a good basis for this argument. On reflection though, how many other games demonstrated that we got it totally wrong, while Parky did nothing to change things?

Even considering the two examples, we lost one convincingly but we won the other.

Yes it wasn’t pretty versus Ipswich, and agreed they went down to ten men for over 15 mins which means we should have strolled it to some. Additionally, we only won through a penalty... but both the red card and the hand ball were valid in my view.

I would also argue that nobody who was listening to the awkward Danny and Frankie silences were sat there urging Maguire to miss, so the result was fairer, were they? We want to win. Given the law of averages, we will have some good wins and we already have had one or two. Is it so bad we finally got a bit of Ref benefit, and ground this one out?

The one part of the above frequently heard criticism I wholly agree with is the lack of a plan B. Even in games we have gone on to win, there were times when the coach must have seen some really turgid football, and should have recognised the need to inject variation to assure success. What I don’t get is the apparent lack of understanding from Parky that you don’t have to greatly change tactics when doing that, if you pick a good bench.

Why is that something Parky fails to see?

Shrewsbury Town v Liverpool FC - FA Cup Fourth Round
Shrewsbury clearly had tactics for their game against Liverpool in Jan 2020. Do we have any?
Photo by James Baylis - AMA/Getty Images

By just putting some players with varying strengths and qualities on the bench and using them in the same 3-5-2 when players are having a bad day at the office we can change our fortunes and viewing enjoyment significantly.

It has to be said Phil hasn’t done that much at all as yet, so it looks like we have no plan B, even if he has 3 of ‘em. I’d argue he has used subs a bit more than last season, so maybe/hopefully the direction we are headed in is at least better.

One of the main points that I and many others cite in relation to this concern is based on comments before the season started. Parkinson has raved about our youth getting a run-out, especially instead of the so called “problem players” he has opted to push right down the pecking order.

Unfortunately, just like Boris and his NHS bus stickers, this promise simply hasn’t turned out to be true, or at least not yet. We still have one of the best academies in the country and we now have an U23 team who are holding their own and winning games with good football.

In order to prevent a situation like the Jack Ross late run in, or even the final games before Covid and the PPG decision under Phil, my view is we need to identify and have ready several ways to adjust and vary our game when our tactics and/or players aren’t doing the job.

Sunderland v Portsmouth - Sky Bet League 1 Photo by Robert Smith/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

So what next?

I wrote the bulk of this item before the Mansfield cup game, which many of us thought was a chance to vary the starting lineup, to consider variations in personnel, in shape and to try alternate strategies. What we saw was a shambles, akin to the performance against Portsmouth, but without the opposition being in the same division we are.

Another blip? As was stressed at the start of this piece, the unpredictability of SAFC is the only consistent thing we can rely upon right now. Once again, we need to brush down our stripes, drag ourselves up by our boot straps and get back into winning ways.

The “dead rubber” visit to Fleetwood directly after the Mansfield loss can be seen as the ideal opportunity to do exactly that. Many observers will say that loads of clubs lost to lower opposition as Sunderland did, and that being out of a cup allows us to focus on the league.

I would argue though that the odd cup game is often a welcome distraction too, and a vent for pressure among the relentless and intense hope to succeed with promotion, such as we have around our club at all times.

Sunderland v Hull City - Carabao Cup First Round Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Ignoring the distractions of the cup game, as both opinions about the outcome from such a competition have their merit, I have to conclude that I think it is OK to keep winning ugly, but only if we do it through intent and applied tactical effort.

If we could become the Arsenal of the north and to go up that way, we would all take it. I also have to say however, it is OK to voice disappointment at the spectacle we are enduring right now. At times, what we have seen is certainly not a set of performances which suggest the successful execution of a strategy and its tactics.

If this strategy lasts and we do go up, one thing I am certain of is that we will rapidly need to start to think about next season, post the promotion we so heavily desire.

I say that as I am absolutely confident in declaring this - we will not stay up if we go up next May and play this way. With football like we have seen, in my honest view, there is not a snowball’s chance in hell. But then, who will our manager or owners be by then?

What do you think about our league results?

Let us know your thoughts, we would love to hear from you.

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