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Sunderland are showing signs of progress under Lee Johnson, but more needs to come

Sunderland’s win at Ipswich was another step in the right direction – but there is plenty of room for improvement.

Sunderland v Port Vale - EFL Trophy Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Another win for the lads at Portman Road on Tuesday night was extremely welcome. As was the magnificent form of our unexpected goal machine Charlie Wyke.

His recent form has kept Sunderland on course for a promotion challenge, and it has to be said, without him, there would be far more questions being asked about Lee Johnson’s start at Sunderland.

The former Bristol City manager has enjoyed a relatively solid but unspectacular start since his appointment. On one hand, he’s racked up big wins at Lincoln and AFC Wimbledon – on the other there have been some insipid performances, particularly in defeat to Plymouth at the Stadium of Light.

While certain things have gone against him since his appointment – the AFC Wimbledon at home debacle and subsequent COVID break in particular – the question has to be asked:

Have we seen enough to suggest that Johnson can get this team firing up the league and mount a serious promotion charge?

The answer from me is a tentative yes.

More to come...

While there have been signs of progress, there is certainly more to come from Lee Johnson and his team. Between more time with the squad on the training pitch, new signings and players returning from injury, we may have a chance of escaping League One at the third time of asking.

Johnson’s decision to move Max Power to right back has been a positive switch. Power has slotted into the position and appears to be a natural there. Looking comfortable, the ex- Wigan man has the perfect blend of attacking threat and energy to get up and down the pitch while also understanding his defensive role. One criticism would be the consistency of his crossing, however it would be reasonable to expect that the longer he spends playing wide the better his crossing will get.

Ipswich Town v Sunderland - Sky Bet League 1
Power has looked comfortable at right back
Photo by Ben Pooley/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Power’s move poses the question of where Luke O’Nien finds himself.

One would assume that O’Nien would be a pivotal player if this squad was to mount a promotion push and, after the Shrewsbury game last Saturday, Lee Johnson said that he had spoken with O’Nien about where the former Wycombe midfielder thinks his best position is.

A central role behind the striker or in midfield appears to be the answer considering where Johnson has positioned him since his return (allowing, of course, for his temporary inability to take a thrown in).

Whilst O’Nien has the fitness, energy and endurance for such a position, it must be questioned whether he has the presence or passing range to dictate a game from midfield the way Grant Leadbitter or even Josh Scowen (recent performances aside) can at times.

It remains to be seen where O’Nien will end up, but it is certain that an in-form Luke O’Nien will propel Sunderland up this league, wherever he plays.

On the opposite side, Denver Hume has been a monumental loss. The Academy graduate has been one of the club’s most consistent performers over the past couple of years. His attacking threat has been fearsome and his roaming runs cause problems for the opposition.

His deputy, Callum McFadzean, is a pale shadow in comparison.

Sunderland v Burton Albion - Sky Bet League One
Hume’s attacking threat and defensive nous have been sorely missed
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Getty Images

McFadzean lacks the defensive nous and an attacking threat that we need – it is certainly our weakest part in the squad. A fit Denver Hume will be a welcome addition on his return. Don’t rule out Lee Johnson signing another left back before the window shuts. We cannot afford to be left vulnerable like we have been in recent weeks down that wing.

Home is where the heart is... Or it should be

The Stadium of Light has become a dark place for Sunderland this season. The results have been even darker. Four league wins at home by the end of January has quashed any positivity.

These wretched and woeful results leave Sunderland languishing 16th in the overall ‘home form table’. By comparison, our away form leaves us 3rd only behind Hull and Lincoln.

The stats do not lie and the above stat paints a pitiful picture of where our problems lie.

The Stadium of Light has become too nice of a place for opposing players to come. Losing to the likes of Wigan, Plymouth (who have not won anywhere else away), and MK Dons along with Portsmouth will not get you promoted.

Turgid, pathetic attacking play by previous management has left Lee Johnson attempting to almost re-educate his players on how to attack and win football games again.

A slow process it may be, shoots of progression can be seen from the flashes of brilliance of Jack Diamond and Aiden McGeady (two players who were not given any or much game time previously) and of course our goalscoring machine Charles Thomas Wyke.

Sunderland v Shrewsbury Town - Sky Bet League One Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Where do the improvements need to come?

The onus has to be on improving our attacking play at home. Most opposition teams arrive at the Stadium of Light with the same game plan – a deep lying defence and hope to catch us on the break or at a set piece.

Credit to them, why should they change? The results are there for all to see.

With more time on the training pitch, it is hoped that an increase in tempo and creativity will be seen from our more creative players in the coming weeks.

As previously stated, flashes of brilliance from McGeady and Diamond have been positive but we need more from them and others such as Aiden O’Brien, Lynden Gooch and Chris Maguire, the latter especially.

In what has been a surprise to all fans, there appears to be a sudden reliance on Charlie Wyke to get the goals.

He alone accounts for more than 40% of our 30 goals this season.

In addition to this, only Max Power, Bailey Wright and Lynden Gooch have scored more than one league goal from open play this season.

They’ve each scored two.

Sunderland v Plymouth Argyle - Sky Bet League One
Grant’s our second top scorer this season with four goals – three of them penalties
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

This is simply not good enough, and it is certainly something that must be worked on if Sunderland want to be serious contenders.

Post Ipswich match, Lee Johnson has stated that he hopes to be busy in the transfer market in the final few days. This was music to the ears of most Sunderland fans.

At times, the team looks passive, almost scared of attempting to penetrate in the final third.

There is an abundantly clear lack of pace going forward at times and, while Jack Diamond has been a welcome addition in this department, he is still quite raw.

Johnson could do with a quick winger with a bit more experience under his belt to complement Diamond here.

Furthermore, it would be of benefit to almost everyone involved if a suitor can be found for Will Grigg and Danny Graham.

Unfortunately, it has not worked out for either of them for a variety of reasons and, with the constraints that come with the salary cap, their departure would give Lee Johnson the opportunity to sprinkle some magic across the team to help Wyke and co.

With just about half the season gone, Sunderland are poised for a potential promotion push.

If Lee Johnson can add a little more attacking spark, we could be contenders, rather than pretenders.

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