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Sunderland v Cheltenham Town - Sky Bet League One

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The young guns are getting all the glory, but Sunderland’s old hands still have a part to play…

The average age of Sunderland’s starting line ups has been greatly reduced this season, but the influence of the more senior players within the squad could still prove vital in the promotion push.

Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The news last week that Elliot Embleton penned a new long term deal at Sunderland has been very well received. Fellow Academy of Light product Dan Neil is enjoying a breakout season at the club too, and with several other youngsters also getting first team games it has resulted in an obvious shift in playing style.

Games this season have seen a much more energetic approach from Lee Johnson’s side; play is more adventurous and expansive than fans have been used to in the last couple of seasons and the team and coaching staff have rightly been receiving plaudits for it.

There is an acceptance however that because of the youthful nature of the side mistakes will happen, and poor results will crop up, and that is where some of more experienced players come in.

Following the heavy defeat at Portsmouth, in which the side were accused of failing to adapt to the conditions, some opposition managers may now think there is a soft side to Sunderland that can be exposed.

Regardless of whether that match should have gone ahead or not, some of the younger players in the side are going to be tested in the coming weeks because of that assumption and will need to be talked through games by those around them.

Portsmouth v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
How will opposition managers react to Sunderland’s defeat at Portsmouth?
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Saturday’s opponents Gillingham were a classic example of what we can expect – you always know what you are going to get from a Steve Evans team and in the face of the aggressive tactics and touchline histrionics designed to get into the ear of the officials and knock Sunderland off their stride the Lads are going to have to stand up and be counted going forward. The way the side toughed things out following Embleton’s dismissal was encouraging, and they may be required to show that side of things more often.

The reaction to setbacks has been good so far this season.

Fans have been understanding and willing to be patient with the team, who bounced back well from the slip-ups at Burton Albion and Fleetwood Town but can still be quite open at the back and on some occasions need to do more to control the pace and pattern of games. This comes with practice and time spent together as a team but the influence of figures like Tom Flanagan will speed the process up.

Saturday’s game-winner Flanagan has been just as impressive as any of the new faces during 2021-22, and is constantly organising and communicating with his defensive partners during matches.

His compatriot Carl Winchester is also doing brilliantly this campaign and he too appears to be another steady character able to do his own job but also assist others.

Sunderland v Cheltenham Town - Sky Bet League One
Carl Winchester; setting the standard
Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Alongside this pair in what is arguably Sunderland’s preferred back four at the moment would be Dennis Cirkin and Callum Doyle and whilst you wouldn’t necessarily think it given how comfortable they look, they have barely got 20 senior appearances between them. Both players have made very assured starts to their careers, but it is inevitable that when they face new challenges they will need to lean on their more equipped colleagues.

There were a few sneers when Johnson announced in early August that there would be a ‘leadership group’ of established players that would look to provide guidance and support to teammates and help encourage the right mentality in the club. It is a method that has worked in other industries however and could prove invaluable, especially if Sunderland are in the promotion hunt towards the end of the season.

Having players that have been there and seen it all before so have that nous you need to take the sting out of games or combat the gamesmanship so often seen in League One could give Sunderland an edge. The attractive football has been a joy to watch, but there is a balance to be struck and recognising the players best suited to doing it appears to be a shrewd move. As well as helping the young players, the group now know they are valued and being that type of personality, should thrive on the extra responsibility.

Harrogate v Sunderland - Pre-Season Friendly
Luke O’Nien wore the captains armband in pre-season and continues to be a positive influence
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

With Corry Evans and Aiden McGeady named captain and vice-captain respectively, Bailey Wright and Luke O’Nien being made club captains and Lynden Gooch and Flanagan also handed roles the leadership skills are there. That O’Nien and Gooch in particular, despite still being relatively young themselves, are included speaks volumes about them as professionals.

Johnson’s willingness to look outside and implement different management techniques is well known. The leadership idea makes a lot of sense given the type of squad he is looking to develop and the established players within it will play a key part.

Besides, they have seen from the recent EFL Trophy and League Cup games that they cannot afford to rest on their laurels; the quality at Sunderland is such that if they don’t lead by example they could soon be out of the picture.


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