When Sunderland ended the January transfer window with five new players in their arsenal - Josh Scowen, Bailey Wright, Antoine Semenyo, Declan John and Kyle Lafferty - the majority of supporters were content that we had at least added strength to a squad that sorely needed it. The more recent acquisition of free agent Tommy Smith further aided our cause, with the 29-year old former Ipswich Town captain arriving on the back of Wright’s season-ending ankle injury.
All of the players who arrived came in from a higher level, therefore the expectation was that whilst they might be very good players for the league that we find ourselves in, they were coming to Sunderland on the basis that they’d be playing regular first team football, that they’d eventually help us to promotion and then, in the future, who knows - perhaps in the cases of most of them, they’d earn themselves a new deal in the summer.
Josh Scowen was a signing who particularly excited me. Here was a player who fans of both Barnsley and Queens Park Rangers raved about, a talented midfielder in his mid-twenties who we were told should really be playing Championship football. He’d add the bite and tenacity that our midfield had been lacking since Lee Cattermole departed, and crucially he’d chip in with a handful of goals between now and the end of the season to help ease the burden on our attacking midfielders.
Declan John’s career has stuttered ever since emerging as a teenager in the Premier League at Cardiff, so dropping down to League One in order to gain the game-time he needs at this stage of his career was vitally important for his progression.
Kyle Lafferty and Antoine Semenyo, like John, needed to make a move in order to play football more regularly. Lafferty had a short stint abroad and hadn’t played a great deal after leaving Rangers, whilst Semenyo had been starved of opportunities at Bristol City following a successful stint with Newport last season.
Despite arriving on loan, Bailey Wright was coming here to earn himself a new deal. His time at Bristol City is all but over, with his contract expiring in the summer, and a six-month stint with Sunderland represented the opportunity for him to have a fresh start at a new club where his leadership skills and no-nonsense approach to defending would be valued. Wright, unlike the others, was given a run of games before succumbing to injury.
Tommy Smith might not have a glamorous name, but he’s a real coup for a club in the third tier and his track record suggests he’d make a more than capable signing for the majority of sides in the league above. He’s not quite in his thirties yet, and still has a lot to offer. The fact that he was signed at all suggests the manager was unconvinced by the ability of Lynch and Ozturk to adequately replace Wright following his prognosis.
None of this information is rocket science - everyone knows that the January transfer window is not where the majority of clubs do their core business, but is where teams lacking in certain areas look to plug holes and, in some cases, improve positions desperately in need of assistance. Sunderland were and are no different - we needed to improve, and despite not splashing the cash we managed to pool six players, all of whom in theory were an improvement on what we already had, either as first choice or in reserve.
It’s bewildering, therefore, that we’re now into March and we have yet to see Phil Parkinson fully invest in any of the injury-free players he signed to improve on the solid foundations that he built in January.
I’ve no idea what were said in his conversations with these players during the negotiation period, but I’d hazard that in the cases of Scowen, John, Semenyo and Lafferty at least that they will have expected to have played an awful lot more than they have to date.
Lafferty has been used more than any of the others, but solely as an option from the bench late in games. This is despite it being obvious to everybody watching that the current incumbent of Sunderland’s number nine shirt, Charlie Wyke, is simply not good enough to be the leading marksman in a team who are hoping to achieve automatic promotion.
Is Lafferty the answer to our goalscoring problems? I honestly don’t know, and I’m not particularly sure we can give an informed opinion based on what we’ve seen of him so far, because it would be unfair to judge him when he simply has not been given a proper chance to show what he’s capable of. That said, he has impressed in his fleeting appearances so far, and my gut feeling is that he’d do a better job playing as a target-man in this system than Wyke currently does.
Similarly, nobody can claim to know whether John, Scowen or Semenyo are better than what we have, but each of them play in positions where we’re seeing the need for improvement. Denver Hume, Lynden Gooch and - dare I say it - George Dobson are picked consistently, yet their performances recently have tended to range between average and poor. We knew this before January, and it was a driving factor in why we actually signed players to provide them with competition in the first place.
Declan John hasn’t even been selected in a matchday squad, let alone a starting eleven - this despite the fact that Phil Parkinson has substituted Hume more than once during games without a natural left back to call upon amongst his substitutes. At what point do we not only consider that Hume - as a young, inexperienced player in his first real season as a first-teamer - might not just need a rest, but that we might have a player there who is capable of doing a better job than he’s doing currently? At the very least you’d expect to see John amongst the substitutes, perhaps in place of Conor McLaughlin.
Like Hume, it feels like Lynden Gooch is running on an empty gas tank and that he’d benefit from a couple of games out of the team in order to recharge his batteries. His performance last weekend at Coventry was his worst of the season, and proof that whilst he’s been a dependable goalscorer, he doesn’t always benefit the team with his individualistic style of play. Why not set Semenyo free, and see what he’s capable of producing?
Whilst it may seem harsh to single out George Dobson, I have to wonder whether his lack of productivity in the final third is a contributing factor in our poor rate of chance production and goal conversion. Max Power already does a fantastic job defensively, and has shown in the last two games that he can take responsibility on and offer a goal threat further forward - do we really need two defence-minded players, particularly when we have a man sat in reserve whose track record suggests he’s capable of performing at a level higher than the one we find ourselves at currently?
It certainly feels as though Parkinson is waiting for Dobson to take himself out of the team through suspension in order to save himself a job.
I don’t think that he’s been particularly terrible, but one tough decision I’d like to see made is for Scowen to come into the midfield at his expense, knowing he’s going to provide the doggedness you already get with Dobson, but with the added bonus of his aggression and tendency to venture forward with the ball.
Phil Parkinson hasn’t got an awful lot wrong recently, but his insistence on using superstition to dictate his decision-making has, in my opinion, cost us in the last two games. There were legitimate reasons for him to make changes after the Fleetwood game, backed up by various performances from individuals in the team, and once again he decided to go with his gut, sticking by his favoured starting eleven.
Creatively we’re stifled, propped up by Chris Maguire. Our striker does not score goals. Our defence have, after an impressive run of form, let themselves down by conceding two goals in the opening stages of the last two matches.
Albert Einstein famously quipped that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result”, and right now that’s exactly how it feels when it comes to Phil Parkinson’s continued selection of the same players who, despite proving themselves as more than worthy since the turn of the year, are still humans; humans that tire easily, suffer from dips in form, and that occasionally need to be reminded that they aren’t untouchable.
We signed these players during the January transfer window for a very good reason - because they’re solid players that are either as able or better than what we already have. It’s foolish to ignore them when you have so many quality options at your disposal, particularly when it’s clear even to laymen like myself that the team is in need of variety.
If we’re serious about promotion, then now is the time to recognise that we need to improve. Showing loyalty to players who are willing to go into war for you is admirable, but that loyalty may also be misguided and at the detriment to the team.
Now, after two poor results, it’s time to make some tough decisions. Let’s see what these players we signed to improve our squad are all about before it’s too late; before their fitness and morale worsens with each passing week.
Maybe - just maybe - we’ll unearth something, something that not only helps us to maintain the fantastic work already overseen by Phil Parkinson, but improve on our results, our chance creation, or defending and our goalscoring.