I would be disappointed and frustrated if we sacked Phil Parkinson. I think it would be a mistake. And, given the overwhelming majority of Sunderland fans want Parkinson sacked, I felt compelled to write something.
My thinking is fairly clear; I want Sunderland to get promoted. And I don’t really care how we do it. It would be nice if we played swashbuckling, attacking football. If we battered teams more often. But for me, it’s not even close to a top priority.
“We haven’t improved under Parkinson”
I simply don’t agree with this statement.
So often in football, the score-line will influence our perception of what we’re seeing, without giving us a real perspective of how ‘good’ we’ve actually been. The manager cannot physically affect those key moments that decide whether we win or lose – he can only instil in the team a style of play that enhances our chances of winning.
While it’s true that we’ve got a similar points tally (we’re 2 points better off than we were at this point last season having already played 4 of the top 6) there’s actually a stark difference in the underlying numbers from Jack Ross and Phil Parkinson’s tenures.
We currently have the second best xG (expected goals) in the league, and comfortably the best xGA (expected goals against).
That’s actually pretty bloody promising.
Contrast this to the 2018/19 season under Jack Ross, where we were 15th(!!!) in the league for xG and only had the 7th best xGA.
That’s not only an improvement, it’s a dramatic one.
It suggests that the rate we’re picking up points is more sustainable than the teams who are around us. (By the way, our current PPG (points per game) this season of 1.91 would have left us finishing comfortably 2nd last season. I’d take that).
Many fans will scoff at the mention of xG, and yes I appreciate that expected goals don’t get you promoted, but they’re a great indicator of how a club is likely to perform in the future – and how effective the work of the manager is. Phil Parkinson has made us the best defensive side in the league. There’s no real discussion to be had about that.
He’s also got us creating chances at a significantly better rate than we ever previously have been in this division. It’s up to the players to finish those chances. Not Parkinson. If only we still had Josh Maja and Jon McLaughlin.
It’s a cliché but the margins in football are tight. Phil Parkinson doesn’t control Will Grigg’s right foot. Nor his left one for that matter. If Grigg (the same Will Grigg whom fans have been slating Parkinson for not starting) had scored either one of the two excellent opportunities he was faced with on Saturday the whole tone of the current conversation would be different. Ditto Max Power booting the MK Dons player in our box.
Who would we replace him with?
I often see the argument put forward on Twitter that sacking Jack Ross was the correct decision – it was appointing Parkinson that was the error. While that may to some extent be true, clearly there are better managers out there, hindsight is a wonderful thing. What are the chances that we appoint someone better this time?
Kevin Phillips or Kevin Ball? Get them in – they get it – they’ll get the fans back on side. Except the fans aren’t in the stadium, and so that would have virtually no tangible effect on the players. It’s not to say that the Kevin’s aren’t good coaches, but the truth is we have absolutely no idea how they’d fare as managers. It’s definitely not a risk I believe to be worth taking. Particularly when the already dubious factor of ‘getting the club’ is all but eliminated by the conditions.
Then there are suggestions of a younger manager who plays ‘sexier, more attacking football’; Ryan Lowe, Lee Johnson or (insert the name of a Reserve Team manager of a Bundesliga club here).
How do people actually envisage that playing out?
This team is now set up – and fairly well-adjusted to the Parkinson style of play. When Jack Ross was sacked and Parkinson was appointed, the first few months were awful, largely, in my opinion, because we were adjusting from one tactical system to another. If we did appoint a manager who wanted to play a dramatically different system, is it realistic to think the transition would be completely smooth? I think it’s more likely that it would result in a teething period where we dropped points at a faster rate than we currently are. The rip it up and start again strategy, in a season where fixtures are already congested as it is, seems like a good way of us not capitalizing on what has actually been a pretty strong start.
Suggestions such as Eddie Howe, Sam Allardyce or even Nigel Pearson strike me as ludicrous. These guys would surely be hoping for at the very least Championship jobs. As a reminder, we are currently a League One club, with a wage cap, in the middle of a pandemic where are our finances are likely much more hamstrung than sources within the club are letting on. It’s not going to happen. If it does, then ignore everything I’ve written, I’m an idiot. Howe-ay the Lads, if you’ll pardon the pun.
The Personality Problem
Phil Parkinson is boring. Even I, who have bothered to write a whole article in his defence, feel very little towards the man on an emotional level.
Diego Simeone’s Atletico play heinous football to watch. It’s incredibly defensive and dirty. But because the football is accompanied by his tenacious persona and his immaculate all black attire, it works. It’s a part of the brand. It’s cool.
Jack Ross was cool. He had a cool name and wore a cool cardigan and was generally cool as far as football managers go.
To my eyes, the football under Parkinson is actually better. There seems at least to be far more of a plan in place. More than just, give the ball to Aiden McGeady and hope. But when Sunderland now play boring football, which happened all of the time under Jack Ross, it’s seen as a direct result of the charisma-vacuum that is Phil Parkinson, as opposed to the players not performing. Basically, his blandness on the sidelines colours what we see on the pitch itself.
I’m not saying that we play great football. We don’t. There are teams in the league, like Peterborough, who are easier on the eye. But that’s because they’ve been playing that way for years. They’ve recruited with that in mind. We haven’t.
We’ve lurched from one manager to the next, one half-hearted attempt at an identity to the next. We now have a system. Sure, it’s not the most aesthetically pleasing one. But, in my opinion it’s one that gives us a good chance of promotion.
Being a Sunderland fan is emotional. Losing at home to MK Dons is embarrassing. It hurts. It’s embarrassing and painful that we’re still in League One at all. But so often, as in life, we let our pain cloud our rational judgment. Once the anger and tears have subsided, and the leg of the table that I’ve booted in frustration has been fixed, clear-minded thinking has to prevail.
A mental exercise I find useful is to imagine the same circumstances at a different club in a similar position. If Peterborough or Portsmouth or Ipswich had the same points tally, and were performing the same in terms of xG, would I think it was a sensible decision to sack the manager? No, is the answer. Granted, we are a bigger club than those three, but the situation we find ourselves in is essentially the same. We all want to get promoted and, in my opinion, all have squads of a relatively similar level.
There is of course a hypothetical situation in which we hire a new manager (Paul Cook being the only name which is vaguely realistic that I can get behind) and absolutely storm the league from now until the end of the season, ending with 103 points, Charlie Wyke finishing the campaign with 42 goals. That would be amazing. That would completely justify Parkinson’s dismissal. But to my mind, the chances of it, or anything close to it, happening are slim. I don’t think our squad is up to it. It might have been, ironically, under Ross.
So ultimately it comes down to this; I think our chances of promotion are higher if we stick with Parkinson than if we dive once again into the unknown. Now of course that’s a matter of opinion. But as we’ve learnt the hard way, sacking and replacing a manager more often than not isn’t a recipe for dramatic improvement. If we keep on perpetuating the ‘hiring, firing’ cycle, if we refuse to learn from the past, then I fear we have plenty more years in League One to come. And God help us if that’s the case.