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Talking Points: Eight games since Sunderland last beat 11 men - is Parky on borrowed time?

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The last time Sunderland beat eleven men was eight games ago, a 1-0 win over Crewe. Losing to MK Dons - a team who hadn’t won away since September 2019 - at home is a new low. How much more time will Phil Parkinson get?

Sunderland v Milton Keynes Dons - Sky Bet League One - Stadium of Light Photo by Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images

Sunderland lost 2-1 against MK Dons at the Stadium of Light yesterday, meaning Phil Parkinson’s side have lost their last three competitive games. The victory for Russell Martin’s side was their first away league victory in fourteen months.

The Black Cats took the lead through captain Max Power’s early deflected effort, but were quickly pegged back from a Cameron Jerome header. The Dons then took the lead early in the second half when a naive foul from Power provided former Sunderland target Scott Fraser with a chance to convert from the penalty spot.

Sunderland remain sixth in the League One table, but failed to close the gap on leaders Peterborough who lost 2-0 away against Crewe. MK Dons moved up to 14th and are now unbeaten in four league matches.

Sunderland v Milton Keynes Dons - Sky Bet League One
Max Power’s goal continued Sunderland’s run of scoring in every home fixture so far in the 2020/21 League One season.
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Getty Images

Is Phil Parkinson’s time running out?

Last season many cut Phil Parkinson slack as he inherited Jack Ross’ squad and could have delivered promotion should the season not have been curtailed.

However, with an opportunity to bring his own players in, a full pre-season to get his ideas across and over one year of experience within the job, he looks no closer to delivering promotion as Sunderland remain close, but not close enough.

Yesterday marked another embarrassing home defeat for Sunderland, just one week after equally their record worst FA Cup performance by losing 1-0 to struggling League Two side Mansfield.

Despite Sunderland sitting sixth in the table, the 3-1 home defeat to Portsmouth appears to have completely derailed the team defensively, with the club only keeping one clean sheet in the six games that have followed in all competitions.

Out of those six games, the Black Cats’ only two victories against Gillingham and Ipswich were both heavily influenced by red card and penalty decisions - it is eight games since Sunderland beat a side with eleven men.

It raises the question as to whether Parkinson’s bubble has burst - he relied on the team being solid at the back which meant the few goals we scored were sufficient, but now we are vulnerable defensively that lack of creativity is being criminally exposed.

Parkinson’s two marquee offensive signings, Aiden O’Brien and Danny Graham, have both failed to hit the ground running and failed to solve Sunderland’s goal-scoring issues.

Despite the football being highly unenjoyable, many fans justified “Parkyball” because we won games consistently - if the football is awful to watch and is ineffective to regularly earn three points, how can anyone defend Parkinson keeping his job as Sunderland manager?

Sunderland v Milton Keynes Dons - Sky Bet League One
Since achieving Sunderland’s best start after ten games to a League One season, Phil Parkinson has overseen three defeats.
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Getty Images

Has Will Grigg missed his last chance?

Before yesterday’s match I tweeted my delight at seeing Will Grigg provided with a chance to redeem himself, following a torrid tenure at Sunderland so far, but after the match I simply felt naive for possessing a small piece of hope that he could finally deliver any form of justification of the £3million the club gifted Wigan for him.

The Grigg debate has always been a battle between those who felt the former Northern Ireland international was starved of service, vs those who felt he was massively underperforming in a red and white shirt.

Against MK Dons, there was simply no debate and simply no justification for the two chances Grigg missed, with the latter being one of the worst misses I have seen from a Sunderland player in my lifetime.

His first chance was a one-vs-one where he missed the ball, but the second was a gift, Lynden Gooch could not have served him better, yet still the ball did not find the net.

Somehow 29-year-old managed to divert the ball wide to everyone watching’s disbelief, I would argue it overtakes his previous worst miss when he rounded the goalkeeper and put it wide against Blackpool under Jack Ross.

It is frustrating because many fans really wanted to see him bounce back and show the form he displayed at Wigan which fired them to promotion, but after performances like yesterday that dream seems a complete fallacy.

Those misses are certain to place Grigg at the back of the queue as fourth-choice striker, but Graham and O’Brien have also missed their fair share of sitters this season so it is difficult to completely rule him out of being selected in future.

With his last goal for the club coming over one year ago, is it now time for the two parties to go their separate ways in the January transfer window?

Sunderland v Milton Keynes Dons - Sky Bet League One
Grigg has failed to score in over a year for Sunderland, with his last goal coming in a 5-0 victory over Tranmere.
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Getty Images

Do Sunderland need to include a more offensive central midfielder?

Despite Max Power (luckily) scoring from his deflected shot, Sunderland once again possessed absolutely no creativity in the middle of the park, with all our threatening moments coming from Gooch or Hume out wide.

I mentioned last week on talking points the problems with playing three defensive minded midfielders in front of three defenders and once again it was a clear issue.

Grant Leadbitter kept things ticking as the sitter, both in front of him Power and Josh Scowen barely contributed offensively.

Parkinson has previously discussed Scowen being Sunderland’s like for like replacement for Chris Maguire, but statistically the duo are complete polar opposites.

Usually when Sunderland win Maguire is involved with goals or assists, whereas Scowen has failed to register a league goal or assist in a red and white shirt - the two are completely different players.

Power and Scowen are arguably defensive minded midfielders, who can play box-to-box at a push, neither are creative outlets so is it such a surprise to see Sunderland create so little chances?

The team is crying out for Elliot Embleton to achieve full fitness, they need a creative midfielder who can split a defence and look always be looking to make something happen.

Currently Parkinson relies far too much on Chris Maguire to make things happen centrally, as we have witnessed lately when he is off form, Sunderland struggle and the central midfielders need to contribute more offensively.

Sunderland v Milton Keynes Dons - Sky Bet League One
Power’s goal yesterday was his first league goal of the season.
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Getty Images

Does shoehorning players into different positions work?

In a team that possessed many surprises with Remi Matthews given his league debut, two players in Luke O’Nien and Lynden Gooch were asked to play roles they most likely do not want to be playing in.

Considering O’Nien was signed from Wycombe as a box-to-box central midfielder who could play as a ten, I cannot imagine many Sunderland fans imagined they would one day see him play regularly at centre-back.

Many believed his red card in the home defeat to Portsmouth proved this was a failed experiment, but Parkinson shunned natural centre-back Dion Sanderson in favour of O’Nien.

Not only is O’Nien not a centre-back, but removing him from wing-back means Sunderland lose an offensive outlet who can create and score goals.

Also, despite Sanderson enduring an inconsistent start to his loan spell, what will seeing another player shoehorned out of position instead of him do to his confidence?

To me it sends a message that Parkinson does not trust Sanderson and I cannot imagine the player, nor the Wolves loan manager, will react very well to the decision.

In terms of Gooch, whilst I personally think he is effective at wing-back, some argue that playing him so deep prevents him from playing the dangerous inside-forward role he performed so well in last season.

Despite the American scoring double figures last season, Parkinson has been reluctant to play him as a forward, instead utilising him deeper at wing-back or central midfield.

Gooch openly expressed his frustration at this on Sunderland’s official podcast, declaring he prefers to play as a forward.

The consistent shoehorning of players shows Parkinson has no plan-B and is willing to do anything to retain the shape, as shown by his deployment of O’Brien at left-wing-back against Mansfield.

The question is, can players such as O’Nien and Gooch ever properly develop and become consistent if they’re deployed in multiple positions they would rather not play?

Charlton Athletic v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
O’Nien has played in every position for Sunderland, except upfront and in goal.
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Getty Images