So, the 2021/2022 season is beginning to take shape, we’re starting to get a clearer picture of who League One’s form teams are, as well as where Sunderland currently fit into the promotion race.
Saturday’s defeat against Portsmouth, where just about everything went pear-shaped, was followed by a solid victory against Lincoln in the EFL Trophy to send us into the international break with a victory on the board, and it was impressive to see how a virtual U23 squad performed against a strong Lincoln outfit.
With nine days until we play our next league game, away at Gillingham on Saturday week, I’ve put together some plus points and some areas that we could definitely improve in, when the league campaign resumes after the international break.
An encouraging, if not perfect, start to the league campaign
The Fratton Park debacle left a sour taste in the mouth, but that shouldn’t dampen the fact that, results-wise, we’ve enjoyed a strong start to the season.
Home victories over Wigan, Wimbledon, Wycombe, Accrington & Bolton have been complemented by a superb 5-0 demolition of Cheltenham, as well as victory away at MK Dons. Carabao Cup progress was secured with away wins at Port Vale, Blackpool & Wigan, while losses at Burton & Portsmouth, coupled with a hugely frustrating draw at Fleetwood, have been the only blips so far.
After stodgy & unconvincing starts to the 2019/2020 and 2020/2021 seasons, we are currently among the league’s pacesetters, and when the campaign resumes, a favourable-looking run of fixtures during the remainder of October represents a very good chance to solidify our position in the upper reaches of the table.
With only one home game this month, it will be a good chance to discover whether we can convert our excellent home form into victories on the road.
A much more positive style of play
Gone are the days of Sunderland AFC being a byword for unimaginative sideways passes, hoofed, aimless balls out of defence, and clunky attacking play.
After a full pre-season with his squad, which was rebuilt & rejuvenated as a result of some impressive summer transfer business, Lee Johnson has implemented a go-to style of play that is based around energy, creativity, and moving the ball at pace with crisp, incisive passing.
As we saw against Cheltenham, we are blessed with an abundance of attacking options, and when we click for the full ninety minutes, we can certainly be a match for anyone.
Many of our goals this season have been of a very high quality, with long-range strikes from Elliot Embleton & Dan Neil arguably the pick of the bunch, and the fact that we are no longer solely reliant on Aiden McGeady to produce a piece of magic tells a story in itself.
This is undoubtedly the best & deepest squad we’ve had since we dropped into League One, and several of Sunderland’s players have shone during the opening months.
Before suffering a concussion against Bolton, Dennis Cirkin was emerging as an absolute rock at left back. Physically robust and with a good eye for a pass, he was improving rapidly after a reasonably inauspicious start to his Sunderland career, and hopefully, that continues when he regains full fitness.
On the other side of defence, Carl Winchester’s conversion from midfield utility man to marauding right back has been impressive, and Manchester City loanee Callum Doyle, one or two nervy moments aside, has looked scarily good for an eighteen-year-old.
In midfield, the emergence of Dan Neil has been one of the feel-good stories of the season so far. An academy player who has graduated to the first team and slotted in effortlessly, he is blessed with creativity, vision, and skill on the ball. Against Lincoln, he turned in another superb performance, and it is crucial that he is managed smartly during what will be a marathon season.
Attacking-wise, Ross Stewart has emerged as the dominant central striker we all hoped he would become, and Everton loanee Nathan Broadhead has also shown glimpses of promise. Throw Embleton, Leon Dajaku, Lynden Gooch, and McGeady into the mix as well, and our options are plentiful.
The ‘could be betters’
The Portsmouth game did highlight one key area that we must ensure we don’t neglect: the ability to adapt our style of play when needed. If ‘plan A’ isn’t working, we have to be able to call upon plan B, or even C, in order to ensure that we aren’t caught flat-footed.
At home, on the lush grass of the SOL, we should always back ourselves to play on the front foot and to take the game to the opposition, but during away matches, and particularly as autumn arrives and the weather turns, we have to be able to cope with sub-standard pitches & opposing teams who opt for a more in-your-face style of play.
In his impressively composed post-match interview, Lee Johnson acknowledged that we simply didn’t play the conditions on the south coast well at all, and that we need to be smarter in those kind of adverse situations. Our visit to Gillingham will be a chance to see whether we’ve learned from what happened against Portsmouth. A 4-0 defeat is never a positive, but as a learning experience, albeit a harsh one, it could be invaluable.
One person’s gritty victory is another person’s ‘hanging on for dear life and waiting for the referee’s whistle’, and several of our games this season have had nervy endings, during which we’ve often had to weather spells of intense pressure from the opposition.
This is where the senior pros and members of the much-vaunted ‘leadership group’ need to seize the initiative, ensure that nobody panics, and that we hold both our nerve and our discipline. For the younger members of the squad who lack experience in pressurised situations, it can be a daunting experience, but this is the reality of L1 football: you are going to have to ride out storms if you want to win matches.
Retreating into our shells and trying to tiptoe our way towards the end of games is not a tactic that we can fall back on and expect to pay dividends, as we often found out during Jack Ross’s tenure as manager. Any encouragement given to the opposition is likely to be seized upon, and nowhere was this illustrated more starkly than against Fleetwood, where a 0-2 lead was thrown away in thirteen crazy minutes.
Sunderland teams of recent seasons have often been criticised for their inability to convert narrow leads into victories. There will be setbacks along the way, but 2021/2022 has to be the season when we finally buck that trend and see out games successfully.