Sunderland somewhat surprisingly stuffed Lincoln 4-0 on Saturday on the road down at the LNER Stadium (formerly Sincil Bank). The win came courtesy of a penalty from Leadbitter, which was well-earned by Diamond plus a brace of short range but decent finishes from Wyke, and a sublime left-footed finish from Diamond to round off a great run out.
We were 3-0 up at half time, and many were reaching for the tissues to control a potential nose bleed such was the situation, though it was very possible we may have been 2-0 down after Lincoln breaks in the 8th minute and around the 13th minute.
Thankfully Lincoln attackers squandered both opportunities, with Burge playing a big part in keeping his net from bulging, especially on the second occasion.
With a four goal haul away from home and a clean sheet, the talking points are positive for the first time for many weeks - even when we beat Ipswich in what feels like eons ago, the performance was underwhelming, and the team looked fortunate rather than the real deal.
So what are the key talking points, reflecting back on such a fantastic result?
Was this just manager bounce, after the Johnson appointment last week?
It is easy as a Sunderland fan to align this game to the 5-0 beating of Tranmere in the early days of our previous manager’s tenure, but for me this was very different. Lincoln were not like Tranmere were then - Lincoln are in great form, in the auto promotion spots close behind Hull, and they had only let in 10 goals in the league before our game.
We not only increased their goals against by 40% in one game, we also stopped them scoring at all - yes, they had chances, but we had more too, with what must have been a record creative tally at least for a very long time. It was a robust and all round good win, and arguably our first and best convincing win against a promotion contender for many months.
Interestingly the team selected was an XI which very much could have been put out by our last manager (assuming his beef with McGeady could have been sorted).
The way in which the team performed however was as far as possible from the dull, defensively focused games we have seen over the prior 13-month tenure. Hopefully this is way less new manager bounce than people may feel. Anyone who watched the game and experienced the 60% possession, 14 shots with 9 on target and 80% pass accuracy will know this was unlikely to be a new manager flash in the pan. Let’s hope so.
Why did it go so well?
The performance today was like night and day from what we have experienced in recent weeks, pre-Johnson, and even versus Wigan and Oldham. Most importantly for me, and likely for many, it resembled exactly what Lee Johnson has been touting as what he wants to see from the team.
Was it perfect? No it wasn’t. In the first 20 mins while both sides pressed for the opening goal, we looked vulnerable on the break and were fortunate the opponents shooting boots were in quarantine for the couple of chances we allowed to develop, in place through poor defensive decisions. But we scrambled and battled, and we kept them out, showing determination and character which has been missing in action for too many games across recent fixtures.
We pressed from the front and pushed the opposition into errors, forcing them to seek the killer pass after we took the lead, passes that on most occasions were cut out by the defence or midfield. We attacked, most significantly with real pace and intent from McGeady, Diamond and even Wyke, plus later on from Maguire on the break, which we have not seen for what feels like all season and more.
We were ballsy, brave and ambitious, and we were rewarded.
There are many theories why this went so well but the attitude and application of all the squad deserves a huge nod from the fans, as no matter what the coach says, if they don’t get behind his ethos and concepts, it won’t work, period.
This went well in my view mainly because the team and the coach had a common aim, and they applied the tactics to achieve that with aplomb. This game was a major message to many around us in the table, and if it continues the teams around us in the chase for promotion will start to accept we are different, and for the better.
Effective use of substitutes
One of the main criticisms of the old regime was the fact the EFL has recent enabled five subs to be used (partly to help with injuries from a short pre-season) and we ignored that.
In the past, even when ahead we failed to use that option to secure all three points. On Saturday, the coach not only used all subs, but he used them in an effective and tactically positive way.
Diamond was man of the match for me, but he gathered a yellow card in the first 45. It is a reasonable assumption that he is young enough to lack the composure to prevent that escalating to worse, and it was evident from the game he is key to our revised way of playing.
Rather than take a risk, the coach wisely swapped in Maguire at half time, who on seeing the performance from Diamond put in a display resembling that of his old self, and a player who knows his place is under threat. This for me is precisely what we need.
We have a squad with depth including from our academy. The young blood can only be a positive option, and today showed that we can and should get young players out there to make a difference, in the starting eleven and off the bench, as this can improve the squad and team for the better in many ways.
So is this a new dawn?
After the final whistle sounded, for once I was disappointed. Had another 30 mins been played we probably would have scored more, and Grigg would likely have been in the goals, as he continues to look sharp and likely would have done as well as Wyke given a starting berth.
Even for optimists like me, it is realistically too soon to call this a new dawn, but it is certainly a huge step up in performance, results and confidence for the team, which cannot be totally disassociated from the fact Lee Johnson has now got his claws into our team and it’s tactics.
As (slightly misquoted by the gaffer before the game) Aristotle once said, “One swallow makes no summer, nor does one day’. This is however a great roll of the dice on the gamble that is taking Sunderland up the snakes and ladders board we need to beat.
Let’s hope if not a new dawn, this is at least a sliver of light on a clear morning, showing signs of a sunny spell to come.