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Talking Points: Can Sunderland still achieve promotion or is this season a write off?

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On the back of Saturday’s disappointing draw with Northampton, are fans starting to question whether promotion is still attainable for Sunderland?

Northampton Town v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Pete Norton/Getty Images

Sunderland started 2021 on a rather depressing note, drawing 0-0 away to struggling Northampton. The team failed to create any clear cut chances and the game exemplified how important the January transfer window will be for Lee Johnson.

The result meant the Black Cats remain 11th in League One, three points away from the playoffs, but eight points away from the automatic promotion places. In contrast, Northampton are now three points above the relegation places, but have played more games than many of their rivals.

Sunderland have now won just ONE of their last eight League One matches, and their next fixture is on Tuesday 12th January against League Two side Port Vale in the EFL Trophy.

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

Are Sunderland still capable of achieving promotion this season?

It is a new year, but will 2021 bring a new Sunderland?

Phil Parkinson needed to go and bringing in Lee Johnson provides a fresh set of ideas, but Johnson still has inherited a squad that is not his and many of whom are new arrivals who simply have not performed.

It prompts the question of: can Johnson still deliver promotion this season, or will it be a transitional period where he needs time to bring his own people and create a new mentality/style of play?

The thrashing of Lincoln looked to show we have turned a corner, but Saturday’s 0-0 draw with Northampton reminded every Sunderland fan of just how one dimensional and poor this team is going forward.

Sunderland have beat some of League One’s best this season in Lincoln, Peterborough and Ipswich, but have also failed to beat: Burton, Wigan, Rochdale, Wimbledon and Northampton.

Johnson is now tasked with a brutal schedule where the team will likely play two games a week until the season he concludes, he must take a team placed 11th to the playoffs at minimum.

On a more positive note, Sunderland are unbeaten away from home and have lost the least amount of games in League One, but does this squad look like or possess the quality to achieve promotion?

It would certainly be an impressive achievement if Johnson managed to turn our season around and achieve promotion.

Northampton Town v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Sunderland have won two out of the five games Lee Johnson has managed so far.
Photo by Pete Norton/Getty Images

How important are Luke O’Nien and Denver Hume to Sunderland?

During the match on Saturday I highlighted on Twitter the lack of attacking threat Sunderland possessed without the injured duo Luke O’Nien and Denver Hume.

Dion Sanderson and Conor McLaughlin were solid defensively, with Sanderson deserving significant praise for deputising at left-back, but neither offered any penetration going forward and did not influence our attacks.

Usually the Black Cats would have both full-backs making piercing runs to deliver crosses into the box, and I would go as far as saying O’Nien is more of a goal threat from right-back than any of our three starting central midfielders yesterday.

Hume is Sunderland’s third best creator this season, with only Lynden Gooch and Chris Maguire creating more goals, he has come on leaps and bounds from our first League One campaign and is developing into a promising attacking full-back.

It shows the lack of depth within Sunderland’s side as in our first League One season Hume was third choice behind Bryan Oviedo and Reece James, plus O’Nien competed with Adam Matthews, now the replacements options are far inferior.

This Sunderland side is criminally lacking athleticism, players who can break forward at speed or beat a defender one-vs-one, it is the main factor Johnson needs to address in this transfer window.

To make matters worse, both O’Nien and Hume are out of contract in the summer, meaning any Championship interest across the next six months will become very problematic for Sunderland.

Oxford United v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Luke O’Nien is back in training following the dislocation of his shoulder against Burton Albion.
Photo by Leila Coker/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Will Johnson be able to bring in adequate reinforcements in January?

Now the January transfer window has opened, Sunderland are once again under pressure to bring in reinforcements who can improve our starting eleven and help turn our season around.

The Sunderland Echo reported a deal for Forest Green captain Carl Winchester is close, the midfielder only has six months remaining on a contract so a minimal transfer fee is likely.

The 27-year-old is a former Northern Ireland international and played for Oldham during Johnson’s tenure as manager.

Former Sunderland academy midfielder Jon Mellish has also been linked, but no concreate information on this potential deal has been reported.

Sunderland can only register 22 players and anyone aged over 21 must comply with wage cap regulations, which makes signing senior players from superior leagues increasingly difficult.

Sunderland will also have to let players exit, with George Dobson and Danny Graham likely to leave on loan.

The best method for Johnson to sign improvements on what Sunderland currently possess is through the youth loan market, anyone aged under 21 is excluded from the rules.

This is a market Sunderland have failed to successfully tap into, with past examples such as Kaz Sterling and Jimmy Dunne failing to impress.

With Sanderson being Sunderland’s only current loan player, the club have more than enough space to find some young prospects in need of regular game time who can bring what we are lacking, pace and power.

The challenge for Johnson and Kristjaan Speakman is to bring in players who would be an improvement on Sunderland’s current starting XI, it will be the hardest of our three January transfer windows in League One given the new rules, but it must be successful.

Forest Green Rovers v Crawley Town - Sky Bet League Two
Winchester won Oldham’s Player of the Year award in 2015, managed by Lee Johnson before he left for Barnsley.
Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images