Another week, and another seven days of the rollercoaster of emotions that is following Sunderland Association Football Club.
What a bizarre week – even by our standards.
We went into the Charlton Athletic fixture at the Stadium of Light with four successive victories behind us. Two were in the Papa John’s, but in League One we’d won four of the last five and just beaten Crewe 4-0 on their own patch.
But this season seems to throw us the odd curveball just at the point when we think we might get carried away with the thought of getting out of League One.
It’s as if the third tier is desperately trying to cling on to us when we threaten to pull away from the pack. It gives us a periodic reminder that we won’t have it all our own way and keeps our feet firmly on the ground.
Looking back to only three games into the season, on the back of two impressive wins, we outplay Burton only to lose via the only goal. This was followed by five wins and a draw in the next six, before we took our reality check at Portsmouth, before two away victories ahead of last week.
It started off with the visit of crisis club Charlton Athletic, where unbelievably poor officiating was compounded with the Lads not quite being at the races and Charlton experiencing a bounce from losing a struggling manager. Not a desirable combination, and it resulted in defeat.
Then, during midweek, we progress to the quarter-final of the Carabao Cup after a penalty shoot-out at Queens Park Rangers, and two days later, 19-year-old Dan Neil signs a long term deal until 2025.
So it was party time once more, and we can put the Charlton defeat down to one of those incidents that should be a big thing when you’re out with mates during the consumption of a few beers, but next day nobody can quite remember it and you simply forget it ever happened.
On to Rotherham in a huge game at the top of the table, and we know we’re a good team, play nice stuff, always on the front foot in an attacking sense, so we take a large following and expect to show our rivals just how good we actually are.
And maybe this is a chink in the armour. This is essentially a new side, being led by a manager who now has the tools he desires at his disposal, and the shackles are well and truly off the players and Lee Johnson.
It’s obvious by the way they have played this season that this squad is responding to being given the freedom to play attractive football, and more importantly, attack the opposition at will.
At times we play with a swagger and a confidence that we haven’t seen Sunderland play with during our previous three seasons in League One. This side thinks they have the three points in the bag whoever the opposition, and more often than not this season, we’ve achieved the results to back up that confidence.
None of what I have said above I class as negatives by the way - confidence is great, but we are still trying to strike a balance with this team.
It was interesting to hear Lee Johnson’s comments following the Rotherham game when he spoke of the side learning and he himself still learning as a manager, as well as learning about his new squad that he has led for just over a quarter of a season.
The obvious sign as to how far the pendulum has swung in terms of comparing our new expansive approach to our more conservative approach of the past under Jack Ross, Phil Parkinson and to a certain extent Lee Johnson with the squad he inherited in the second half of last season, is the number of draws we have collected so far this season – one.
Looking back at our previous three seasons, only Jack Ross collected more points from the first 14 League One fixtures, which came in the first half of 2018-19 when we were one point better off after the same number of games. Even then, we won eight and drew five of those games, suffering only one defeat. This season, we have won one more but lost four times as many games.
This side is essentially ‘all or nothing’ as it stands, where you could imagine they’d be disappointed to have to share the spoils with the opposition, and it’s going to take a risky change of shape by the manager or new personnel in January to avoid these bumps in the road.
Going down 5-1 at the New York Stadium inevitably invites more questions than if we went down by a single goal in a well fought game, and so it should, but the nature of this side in how we play is going to run the risk of the odd result like this moving forward – unless we attempt to adapt to our surroundings and plan accordingly for certain opponents.
It’s a young squad, freshly put together just over eight weeks ago when the transfer window closed, with a manager who is coming to grips with an embarrassment of riches in attacking areas. Consistency will come when we strike a balance in either mentality or the shape of the side.
It’s a fine line that Lee Johnson is walking to get this right - we are still in a good position in League One despite recent results, but too often we have a soft underbelly that our goals against record shows. All the other sides in the top six have conceded fewer goals than we have, and they have all played more games.
This record is course impacted by conceding nine in just the two games at Portsmouth and Rotherham. But they are perhaps symptoms of losing a midfield battle when our two behind the number 10 struggle to control the game.
We’re still on course, we just need to make sure we learn from a result like Saturday at Rotherham, because if we repeat the same mistakes automatic promotion will be touch and go this season.
Our recent run means that our trip to Hillsborough is huge ahead of two cup games, and it’s obvious we could do with the three points, but a longer winning run stretching into the festive period would go down a treat right now.