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Why Sunderland’s win at Oldham could be the most significant of the whole season

“I don’t care if this was a ‘’meaningless’’ cup tie. A club the size of Sunderland should be gunning for glory in the EFL Trophy” says Joseph Tulip, who thinks Johnson’s first win can be the springboard for continued improvement.

Oldham Athletic v Sunderland: Papa John’s Trophy Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

I took exception to a TV news report which declared Lee Johnson’s first win as Sunderland manager came in a ‘’meaningless’’ cup tie.

The urgent need for a win, and for Johnson to get off the mark early in his reign, far outweighed the nature of the fixture.

Make no mistake, a 2-1 victory over Oldham on a cold Tuesday night could be the biggest and most significant of our season.

Since his arrival on Saturday, Johnson has been a breath of fresh air, music to the ears of Sunderland fans with his talk of potential, raising standards and changing the style of play.

But the sooner a manager, or indeed a head coach, can get the first win under his belt, the easier it is for him to prove to everyone involved with the club that he means business.

We went into the game on the back of a worrying run of form. Johnson had to address this - and while there were no league points to bring home from Boundary Park, the result could be the springboard for a resurgence in League One.

Oldham Athletic v Sunderland: Papa John’s Trophy
Lee Johnson
Photo by Eddie Garvey/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Tuesday’s game was far from a classic, but for those who watched the live stream, the positives far outweighed the negatives.

Bailey Wright – the lynchpin of the three-at-the-back system so faithfully deployed by Phil Parkinson, has made uncharacteristic errors in the last two games as part of a back four.

Perhaps he’s been trying too hard to impress Johnson, a manager he previously played under as captain at Bristol City. But it’s more than likely that Wright, alongside Tom Flanagan, are merely re-adjusting to being part of a back four.

It wasn’t a familiar back four either, with Callum McFadzean and Conor McLaughlin taking the places of injured full backs Denver Hume and Luke O’Nien, in front of a young goalkeeper in Anthony Patterson.

Having impressed me in his early outings in red and white, McFadzean struggled at times on Tuesday, especially with his crossing.

Callum McFadzean
Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In stark contrast to Parkinson, Johnson appears to favour a 4-3-3, with the much-maligned Will Grigg the focal point of our attack.

You can see Johnson’s logic. Here’s a player who cost us a substantial sum of money and has previously scored goals at this level, who has become a chronic under-performer.

Instead of moving him towards the exit door, Johnson has handed him a clean slate, and I thought this was Grigg’s best all round performance in months.

He looked sharp, strong in possession, and read the game well. Grigg dropped deep to receive the ball on occasions, and showed a willingness to run the channels.

There’s an argument for the main striker to remain central. But our attack looked flexible, with Chris Maguire taking up a poacher’s position to score our first.

The pace of Jack Diamond on the right side of the front three gave us a new dimension. The youngster looked full of confidence. He stretched the Oldham defence, especially in the first half, both reaching the byline and cutting inside.

Oldham Athletic v Sunderland: Papa John’s Trophy
Jack Diamond
Photo by Eddie Garvey/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

It was Diamond’s powerful low cross which was deflected into the path of Maguire for our opening goal, and surely the youngster has played his way into the manager’s plans for league fixtures.

Johnson has spoken about the quality of deliveries in the final third, and it was a superb free-kick from Grant Leadbitter which was met by the head of Josh Scowen for our second goal.

Scowen headed home his first for Sunderland after making an intelligent run to the near post – another example of a tactical change Johnson has spoken about.

In central midfield, there were more forward passes and attempted through balls than usual, a refreshing change from the square and back cautious play which had become the norm under Parkinson.

Sunderland v Wigan Athletic - Sky Bet League One
Grant Leadbitter
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Getty Images

With Grant Leadbitter sitting deep, Max Power tried to drive forward when the opportunity arose, although not always successfully. Scowen, as always, was mobile and tried to use the ball intelligently.

Johnson’s philosophy will be come clearer as the season progresses. The man himself declared that one swallow does not make a summer, but there was evidence of positive change on Tuesday. We were hanging on a little towards the end - Patterson making a tremendous save - but Johnson can’t change everything overnight.

I don’t care if this was a ‘’meaningless’’ cup tie. A club the size of Sunderland should be gunning for glory in the EFL Trophy, even with promotion the ultimate goal.

Bigger tests against stronger opposition lie ahead, starting with Lincoln on Saturday. But Johnson and his new team had to start somewhere.

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