Nothing about last night’s performance in the win over Oldham was particularly spectacular, but there were elements of the performance that, in isolation, give me hope that Sunderland are headed on the right track under Lee Johnson.
He’s not a miracle worker, and after a mere matter of days in his job it would be impossible for him to create real change. What he can do, though, is slowly improve the mentality of the team. Teaching the players the ins and outs of his preferred tactical system will of course take time, but clearly from his research on the side he’s found noticeable concerns with aspects of Sunderland’s play, some of which he’s already referred to in his interviews since joining - the main one being the intensity of our play, the fitness of the players, and the bodies we get into the box when our wide players get into the box.
I think that last night we saw the players trying to follow his instruction in that regard. We pressed higher up the pitch, which I think is why Oldham were allowed so much time and space on the ball for their goal. That’s something we have to work on. Sadly, what Johnson cannot do is make these players quicker - pressing with this side will be a whole lot easier when he has Denver Hume, Jordan Willis, Luke O’Nien and Lynden Gooch to call upon.
Despite the poor midfield pressing for their goal, I thought we pressed well throughout. In particular, it was great to see Will Grigg, Chris Maguire and Jack Diamond charging around up top. It was the first time in a long time that I can say Grigg had a decent game, and he looked refreshed, perhaps because the new manager has stuck an arm around him and told him he’s going to work with him to ensure we get him back to his best.
Our crossing was far better too, particularly from the right-hand side. Josh Scowen’s deliveries were great, but Jack Diamond’s were even better - it was fantastic to see Jack take the opportunity and grab it with both hands.
He suits a 4-3-3 much better than he does being flung out of position at wing back like he was under Parky. His instructions when in possession of the ball should be straight forward - allow yourself some space with the full back, receive the ball on the touchline, and look to use your skill set as often as you can. He’s two footed, tricky, quick and can vary the way he delivers the ball. What we saw last night was a flair player operating without the shackles on - in particular, his first half performance was great.
An awful cliché I know, but perhaps we really have unearthed a rough diamond with Jack. The key will be having a manager who has faith in his abilities, and understands that to get the best from him, you must ride through the bad performances, allow him to flourish and learn from his mistakes, and then improve.
I know Anthony Patterson perhaps could have done better for the goal but, in truth, I think the blame for that one lies with the midfielders who, as I mentioned before, found themselves stranded as we tried to press high up the park.
I’ve been wanting Patterson to get a proper run in the first team for some time now, and hopefully this is the start of things to come.
His superb save to deny Oldham an equaliser in the second half was a show of what this lad is capable of. No disrespect intended to Lee Burge and Remi Matthews, but at this stage - with Sunderland in League One, and both senior keepers out of contract in the summer - I see little point in persisting with them. We aren’t going to see any improvement in their performances, and we’ve arguably seen enough of both to suggest they’re not quite up to standard. You certainly wouldn’t want either of them between the sticks should we defy the odds and gain promotion to the Championship - they’d both struggle playing a division up.
Patterson, however, has room to develop and improve. Physically he is ready - he’s a big lad with broad shoulders. He likes to come off his line to claim crosses with both hands, which is a rarity in modern goalkeeping these days. His kicking is straight out of the Mark Prudhoe play book, adopting the sidewinder that Jordan Pickford, another Prudhoe prodigy, has developed a reputation for. His shot stopping is good - he’s agile and alert.
Why not give this boy a chance? Play him. Make him first choice. Why not?
I touched on Scowen’s performance briefly but I honestly thought he was great.
He was everywhere, like a rat. I knew he had that nickname for a reason. He won’t score many headers in his career considering he’s not the tallest, but the inch-perfect delivery from Grant Leadbitter meant it was on a plate, and he stuck the ball away with ease.
Don’t forget that Scowen was arguably Lee Johnson’s most important player at Barnsley. As the new gaffer aims to get his feet under the table and stamp his authority, don’t be surprised to see Scowen and Wright become important, integral players. He’ll need experienced performers on his side as he bids to win over the rest of the squad.
All in all, it wasn’t the best performance and I won’t pretend that it was, but it was a sign of things to come, I think... I hope.
Once Johnson has the squad fit, has his best first teamers back fit, and perhaps even the pace of Benji Kimpioka to call upon, it’ll be interesting to see how we get on.
In the short term, though, we have to learn from these experiences. The game at Oldham was always one we should have expected to win, but in recent weeks we’ve lost far too many games against teams that we should be beating.
Now that we’ve got that monkey off our backs, now that the manager has his first victory, and now that we’ve put an end to our run of bad results, let’s kick on from here, and let’s do it with some new ideas in play.
Give Jack Diamond and Anthony Patterson a chance to flourish, by playing regularly. Improve our standards - let everybody know that their place in the side is not guaranteed.
Let’s get our promotion push back on track. If we have belief, we can do it.