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The five burning issues that Sunderland manager Phil Parkinson has to contend with

While a lot of talk at present surrounds our ownership, the action on the field will restart in a mere six weeks time. Martin Wanless looks at the key questions Parky needs to find an answer to before a ball is kicked.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Will we stick with 3 at the back?

Last season. Phil Parkinson sacrificed a huge and significantly important part of the season to implement his new system of choice, which seemed strange at the time because he didn’t particularly have a record of playing with three at the back at Bolton or Bradford. In truth, after it was bedded in, it worked pretty well.

It was actually the first time I’d ever seen a three at the back system work for Sunderland - a few managers have tried this and it’s never looked comfortable for us - but once the players had adapted, it looked as if it might be enough to get us into promotion contention.

It’s a system that gave us an identifiable style of play, and although Parkinson’s style of play has generated some criticism, it’s lazy criticism based on what we saw post-Boxing Day.

It’s a system that brought out the best in Maguire and Gooch, and Hume looked a lot more comfortable with the added protection of a third defender behind him.

Given the amount of effort that went into establishing the style of play last season, it’d be a major surprise if Parkinson deviated too far away from it.

Sunderland v Fleetwood Town - Sky Bet League One - Stadium of Light
Jordan Willis looked increasingly effective as the right sided centre back
Photo by Richard Sellers/EMPICS/PA Images via Getty Images

Who starts in goal?

With McLaughlin’s departure, Lee Burge is - probably rightly - set to be given his chance to establish himself as number one. That said, Parkinson gave him a chance early into his reign and quickly reinstated the out of form McLaughlin - so it remains to be seen how convinced he is of Burge’s ability to perform week in, week out.

Burge’s reputation at Coventry was one of inconsistency, and as a keeper who did not dominate the box - as we witnessed first hand in that crazy 5-4 game.

On the occasions that we’ve had the chance to see him in goal, however, I’ve been impressed with his distribution, which has been quicker and more accurate than McLaughlin was able to deliver.

I think Burge will start the season as number one, however, given only Patterson is available back up at present, an experienced keeper who’ll challenge Burge is needed.

Who said Ben Alnwick?

Sheffield United v Sunderland AFC - Carabao Cup Third Round
Will Lee Burge make the number one jersey is own?
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Who’s going to score the goals?

Unfortunately, as much as he works hard Charlie Wyke will not score enough goals in this formation for us. He works hard, however, I believe our main striker needs to be netting 20-plus - and Charlie isn’t that type of player.

Will the central striker in a Parkinson team ever score that many, however? Parkinson’s teams tend to feature a 10 goal a season striker, rather than a 20 and in the current system, we need a target man to lead the line, link-up play... and score goals.

Armand Gnanduillet, formerly of Blackpool, has been linked and, with a 1 in 2 strike rate last season, could fit the bill.

The arrival of Aiden O’Brien offers more options across the front three, and a full season for Gooch and Maguire should see them both get into double figures.

And then there’s Will Grigg.

Getting goals out of Grigg is Parkinson’s biggest challenge. Many will say - justifiably - he is finished at SAFC, however getting Grigg firing could be the key to getting us up. He should be a great option for us - even if it’s coming off the bench to change things up.

Anyway, we can’t sell him to another league one club - you know full well how that script would end, don’t you?

Bristol Rovers v Blackpool - Sky Bet League One
Armand Gnanduillet could make all of the difference, if we can manage to sign him
Photo by Ian Cook - CameraSport via Getty Images

What role will the young players play?

The big opportunity we had two years ago was to build a young team with an identifiable style of play that could take us up through the leagues.

It’s been evident for the past 24 months, however, that there is little to no desire to bring young players into the first team and first-team squad. The lack of opportunities granted to Ethan Robson and Bali Mumba, for example, testifies to that.

However, If we are going to slow down the mass exodus of anyone with a modicum of talent from the Academy, we need to present a pathway to the first team.

Jack Diamond has had a good loan spell at Harrogate and should figure prominently in Parkinson’s thinking this time around. Dan Neil, too, who’s been linked with Leeds, may feature, and Brandon Taylor, who signed a new contract this week, could well find himself as first back up for the three centre backs.

Whatever happens this season, I’d love to see a complete overhaul of the Academy - the pathways to the first team made clear, and a commitment to developing our young players for our good on the field, rather than filling the dwindling coffers.

Benfica B v Sunderland: Pre-Season Friendly
Ethan Robson – currently interesting Portsmouth – struggled to get a prolonged chance in the Sunderland first team
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Who’ll wear the armband?

A lot of people underplay the importance of the role of captain. For me, it’s a critical one. Read stories about Kevin Ball or Roy Keane, look at Jordan Henderson. Whether it’s organising people on the field, setting an example to aspire to, or ensuring everything happens off the field as it should, the captain’s role is key.

Grant Leadbitter was officially captain last season, and is the type of character who can lead by example. On the field, however, he didn’t play anywhere near as much as would have been expected, and it’s difficult to see him being a first-team regular this season.

Max Power wore the armband in Leadbitter’s place and really seemed to grow into the role and, in truth, there are few other candidates. Jordan Willis, possibly. The only real alternative – should he sign, of course – is Bailey Wright, so it seems likely Leadbitter will remain as club captain, Power skippering the team on the field.

Gillingham v Sunderland: FA Cup First Round Replay
Will Grant retain the armband? He’ll be an important influence around the club this season.
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

This does bring a wider point, however. The lack of leadership throughout the team is something that has proved detrimental to us over recent seasons.

When you look back at successful Sunderland teams gone by, they’ve been littered with strong characters. When Kevin Ball was captain, we had Alex Rae, Niall Quinn, Micky Gray, Paul Butler, Lee Clark – all players who, themselves, could justifiably be captaining the side.

Until we start considering character as a more serious requirement when recruiting, we will find ourselves falling down at crucial points of the season.

Still, the transfer window’s wide open, signings are beginning to happen, and we know when the season’s starting.

Hope springs eternal, Baldrick.

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