Sunderland beat Shrewsbury 1-0 yesterday, which moved Lee Johnson’s side up to seventh on the League One table. The Black Cats took the lead in the first half when inform Charlie Wyke headed home from an Aiden McGeady cross.
The victory was Johnson’s first league victory at the Stadium of Light and Sunderland fans also saw the return of Luke O’Nien, who has been sidelined since early December through a dislocated shoulder.
Despite the win, many fans questioned Sunderland’s failure to not grab a second goal, which consequently allowed Steve Cotterill’s side back into the game. Also, questions remain over where Johnson will utilise Luke O’Nien, as well as where Sunderland need to strengthen before the transfer window closes.
Is the main cultural issue Lee Johnson needs to change Sunderland’s ruthlessness?
Lee Johnson spoke after the Plymouth defeat earlier this week about making cultural changes at Sunderland, but the one needed most in my opinion is the behaviour of the players when the team is winning.
From Jack Ross to Phil Parkinson and now Lee Johnson, Sunderland have been known as the club who always draw 1-1. We do not lose a fortune of games, but the main reason we fail to mount serious promotion challenges is our inability to convert draws to wins or to avoid conceding from winning positions.
During yesterday’s match, Sunderland dominated the opening half hour, the team took the lead but after a few chances they went completely passive. The team allowed Shrewsbury back into the game and ended up being fortunate to end the half in front.
Once Sunderland go 1-0 up, there is never that ruthless nature of wanting to kill teams off, you rarely see the team go onto win by 3/4, the focus is always to remain tight with a safety first approach.
The problem with this approach is that you allow teams back into the game, Shrewsbury went from a team being dominated to a team dominating, constantly pushing for an equaliser. Even Chris Kamara covering for Sky commented that Sunderland were a completely different side second half.
This safety first mentality of stopping the offensive push at 1-0 is the exact reason Sunderland are failing, it is not the mentality of a promotion team or a club who set the standards for the league.
Sunderland are simply showing teams too much respect and look fearful once they go in front, Lee Johnson needs to install a mentality that when we go 1-0 up, we push for a second or third. Admittedly, whether you are Barcelona or South Shields, you have to sit back and defend leads, but not after 30 minutes at 1-0.
If Sunderland can start to display more confidence and bravery to kill games, the frustrating draws will become wins and the club can start to be considered as serious promotion candidates.
Where should Lee Johnson play Luke O’Nien?
Luke O’Nien was originally signed by Wycombe Wanderers as a number ten, but during his Sunderland floated around various midfield positions before being permanently utilised as a right-back or wing-back.
The 26-year-old has been a success in his new position, but many question whether he would more useful further forward in his original position. O’Nien is one few within the squad who you feel is capable of scoring, even when deployed from deep.
He is deceivingly good aerially, possesses fantastic energy and you would always back him in the final third to convert a clear cut chance. Lee Johnson himself has discussed the need for O’Nien to nail down a position, so where should he be played?
The safe option is at right-back as throughout the past few seasons O’Nien proved his doubters wrong by impressing in an unfamiliar role. If Johnson seeks to play a narrow 4-2-2-2 system, it requires full-backs to burst forward, something O’Nien thrives at. However, due to Max Power’s positional change and Conor McLaughlin’s upturn in form, is he needed there?
Another option would be to return O’Nien to midfield, either deeper as a six or as a narrow advanced midfielder. A key criticism of Sunderland’s deeper midfielders is that they do not contribute enough going forward, which could be a reason Johnson stopped playing 4-3-3. O’Nien would add much needed energy to Sunderland in the middle of the park, but is Johnson likely to drop Grant Leadbitter or Josh Scowen, plus he just added Carl Winchester to the fold.
Further forward there is solid competition as Aiden McGeady and Jack Diamond have Elliot Embleton breathing down their necks, then you have Chris Maguire who could reproduce some of his brilliant form from last season. Should O’Nien be considered as a midfielder by Johnson, he would certainly face intense competition for places.
The last option is the most daring, which would be for O’Nien to be played upfront as a second striker behind Charlie Wyke for example. Neither Wyke or O’Brien are energetic and neither can run with the ball. Due to his aerial, finishing and running attributes, would it be the worst idea to pair him with Wyke slightly deeper to see if he could a more dynamic central option to our forward line?
Now George Dobson has left, where do Sunderland need to strengthen?
Following Lee Johnson’s decision to allow George Dobson to join fellow League One side AFC Wimbledon on loan, Sunderland fans are all expecting to club to bring in a fresh face or faces before the January transfer window shuts.
The position the club have received the most links is at left-back, due to Denver Hume facing an extended period of two months out with injury, which has left Calum McFadzean as the only fit senior left-back.
The ex-Plymouth man has shown good spells offensively, but since Sunderland adopted a back four system he has been criminally exposed defensively. He was commonly used as more of a left-midfielder for Plymouth and you can see he is very uncomfortable in one-vs-one defensive scenarios.
The club could sign another left-back to replace McFadzean, but the issues come when Hume returns to fitness as any new player would know how important Hume is to Sunderland. The club would also be left with three players to play one position.
The other position Sunderland need an alternative option is upfront, as Charlie Wyke is the only striker of the four to consistently score goals. Admittingly Aiden O’Brien has showed signs of improvement, but he still only has one league goal to his name. Neither Will Grigg or Danny Graham have shown signs of being reliant goal scorers when they have played this season.
Johnson would benefit from having a more dynamic option upfront, someone with pace and power who could play on the shoulder and attack defences. His trial of Lynden Gooch upfront against Port Vale shows that he desires that mould of player, but he needs someone who can find the net regularly and help Sunderland turn draws into wins.
Sunderland do have four loans available, plus under-21 players do not count towards the wage cap or squad lists, but the problem appears to be they cannot shift players seen as surplus to requirements off the wage bill.