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History says Sunderland must focus on attacking threat in order to find promotion

Phil Butler looks at the last seven League One seasons to see where Phil Parkinson’s side must improve in order to finally gain promotion from League One.

Bolton Wanderers v Peterborough United - Sky Bet League One - Macron Stadium
Phil Parkinson’s last promotion from League One, with Bolton in 2016/17
Photo by Barrington Coombs/PA Images via Getty Images

When Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven became owners of Sunderland AFC back in the summer of 2018, they set the target of regaining second-tier football through automatic promotion.

Jack Ross and Phil Parkinson have both since failed to deliver - though, arguably, neither are solely to blame - and with almost half of the current squad out of contract, now is the time for Sunderland to reassess what is required in order to make it third time lucky and find promotion out of the third tier of English football.

Jack Ross regularly commented that he saw 90 points as the target when looking to gain promotion, and recent history shows this number to be an accurate reflection of what is required to finish in the top two.

A haul of 90 points or more has resulted in promotion in all of the last seven seasons, and only four of the last fourteen automatically-promoted sides have achieved less than this total: Rotherham in mitigating circumstances in 2019/20, Parkinson’s Bolton in 2016/17 and both Wigan and Burton in 2015/16).

Sunderland are yet to reach the 90 points which guarantee promotion


An anecdotal account of Sunderland’s time in League One might say that Jack Ross’ side was good going forward but poor at the back, whilst Phil Parkinson has tightened up the defence but sacrificed the offence to do so.

This slightly over-simplified statement does have its basis in facts, however. As the first graph below shows, Jack Ross’ Sunderland side scored the same number of goals as second-placed Barnsley and six more than the average number required to gain promotion from League One. In terms of goals scored, Sunderland did enough to gain promotion under Jack Ross.

However, what these numbers hide is an underlying issue with the attacking part of Sunderland’s team, they scored goals in 2018/19 due to an exceptionally high conversion rate. Scoring a goal every 2.5 shots on target, compared with the average of a goal every 3 shots on target tells of a side converting a good number of their chances on goal - unfortunately this efficient conversion rate deserted the club following the departure of Josh Maja.

When Sunderland’s conversion rate returned to the mean - combined with a below average number of chances created - Sunderland simply haven’t scored enough goals to gain promotion out of League One. The only team to win promotion scoring fewer than the 61 goals Sunderland scored last season was Burton Albion back in an extremely weak 2015/16 - the only year both promoted teams won less than 90 points.


For all the struggles Sunderland have had this season, especially going forward, one thing that can’t be disputed is that they are much stronger defensively than they were under Jack Ross.

Looking purely at goals conceded, no team has been promoted when conceding more than the 47 goals Sunderland allowed in their first season at this level. In stark contrast to this, the 32 goals conceded last season is better than at least one promoted side in each of the last seven years. Sunderland’s defence under Parkinson is clearly good enough for a promotion challenge.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is a trend which also applies to shots on target conceded; under Jack Ross this number was too high, under Parkinson it is promotion-worthy.

One slight weakpoint in Sunderland’s defensive statistics is a low number of clean sheets. This is something that has barely improved under Parkinson’s management and perhaps explains why the drop off in points from season to season has been so high.

The impact of these clean sheets on results has also been fairly constant throughout the time in League One. Of the 13 clean sheets during 2018/19, 12 resulted in Sunderland victories whilst 9 of the 11 clean sheets last season also led to Sunderland victories. Clean sheets, more often than not, mean wins regardless of the quality of Sunderland’s attack.

However, what has changed has been Sunderland’s reliance on clean sheets for gaining victories, something which has been the case ever since Sunderland’s free scoring start to the 2018/19 season subsided.

Last season Sunderland scored more than one goal in a game on 12 occasions (roughly every three games) a total they reached before December in the previous season and 22 times over the entire season (almost every other game).

No matter which way you look at it, the drop off in Sunderland’s goalscoring is the major barrier to automatic promotion.


Over the past two seasons combined Sunderland have met all the requirements expected of promotion-winning sides; however, if they are to reach 90 points next season they need to combine the strengths of both Jack Ross and Phil Parkinson’s teams rather than sacrificing attacking output for defensive solidity.

This look back at previous seasons does provide hope for next year as Phil Parkinson has improved the defence to such an extent that we shouldn’t be worried about conceding a few more goals when looking to make the side better going forward.

However, the natural inclination to provide Parkinson’s Bolton (or low-scoring Burton who were promoted in 2015/16) as the standard to strive for next season is one which should be avoided.

Both sides represent slight anomalies when it comes to teams promoted from League One, and also give a template for what is required to get out of a weak league: defend well, don’t lose many games and grind out results against other sides lacking in quality.

This is a blueprint which may have worked for last season, hence Wycombe’s success, but with at least two of the sides relegated from the Championship likely to be gunning for promotion, along with at least two of Oxford, Portsmouth and Fleetwood, it appears next season will see the standard of League One increase, and that means Sunderland desperately need to score more goals.

Since the 2019/20 season was ended early, all stats have been increased for comparison with 46 game seasons.

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