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Barnsey’s Blog 20/21

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Barnesy’s Blog: Lee Johnson knows he’s under pressure - but, now he must react to recent form

“It is easy to call for Lee Johnson’s head, but we must also remember we bought into the plan and applauded the succession of youth” writes BBC Newcastle’s Sunderland match commentator Nick Barnes.

Danny Roberts

Where has the summer gone?

The clocks changed, and the ebullience and optimism has been wiped out like the daylight - and we’ve been plunged into a mire of murkiness and disenchantment.

Can Sunderland, and can Lee Johnson pull us out?

In quite spectacular fashion the wheels have come off - three matches that have seen Sunderland bullied and humbled. Rotherham rubbed our noses in it and Sheffield Wednesday merely confirmed our suspicions that Sunderland, in the words of Corporal Jones, “don’t like it up ‘em”.

Much has been made since Lee Johnson’s arrival of his previous jobs at Barnsley and Bristol City, and I was reminded at Hillsborough by a colleague who covered his time at Oakwell that Johnson historically hits the buffers and can’t find a way to redress the situation.

At Bristol City Johnson’s team lost at home to Brighton on November 5th 2016. They won just one match between then, when they were 7th, and January 31st when they drew ironically 2-2 at home to Sheffield Wednesday and won 1-0 at home to Rotherham. BUT they had dropped like a stone to 20th, and finished the season 17th.

Johnson remained as manager and the following season Bristol City finished 11th in the Championship.

So how do we apply that parallel to Sunderland?

Sheffield Wednesday v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by George Wood/Getty Images

It’s perhaps glib to do so, because I don’t know the particulars of Johnson’s squad at Ashton Gate nor the reasons why his team slumped so badly, but it does show that he was, in the long run, able to halt the slide the following season and mount a promotion challenge - albeit, it fell away four matches from the end of the season, when two defeats and two draws saw City drop from 8th to 11th.

At Bristol City Johnson was clearly given time.

Does Johnson have time at Sunderland?

The obvious answer is no, as a fourth season in League One is stretching patience to breaking point, and with the start Sunderland made to the season, fans can be forgiven for believing that perhaps, just perhaps, this is the season Sunderland will finally emerge from the doldrums.

We only have to look back a month and the defeat at Portsmouth was widely perceived to be a blip. The consensus was the team was moving in the right direction. Unbeaten at home and with just one defeat away, before Fratton Park, at Burton, a match Sunderland should have won at a canter.

They battled at Gillingham with ten men and resisted Steve Evans charm offensive. They dismissed Crewe with alacrity.

Then they lost at home to Charlton.

Sunderland v Charlton Athletic - Sky Bet League 1 Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Their vulnerabilities were exposed, and Lee Johnson’s campaign against Jayden Stockley looked to outsiders like the wailing of a spoilt child.

Charlton fans railed against Sunderland, and Rotherham fans compounded their jaunts, helped not in small part by the behaviour at the New York Stadium of a minority of fans who sullied the Sunderland badge.

It was made all too easy by the team’s failure to measure up on the pitch, and it has become apparent Sunderland are too ‘nice’ for a concerted promotion campaign in League One. As Johnson admits, opposition players have a ‘textbook on how to beat Sunderland’.

How we smiled smugly when Max Power, Jordan Jones and Charlie Wyke went to Wigan. How we laughed when Wigan were knocked out of the League Cup by Sunderland’s young guns.

But Wigan now sit smugly on top of the pile.

Gillingham v Wigan Athletic - Sky Bet League One Photo by Jacques Feeney/Getty Images

I’m not for one minute suggesting their departures were wrong. No, the point is they are wily experienced players at this level.

Wigan and Rotherham are well versed in the rigours of winning promotion from League One. Wycombe have a formula that alienates everyone but Wycombe fans, based on hubris and gamesmanship.

Sunderland are too soft.

In principle the plan is good. Develop players from within. Sign young promising players to long term contracts and develop them.

They add value to the club in every sense - either as players at Sunderland, or bringing in a financial return. But, the plan is flawed, because of the club’s current financial situation. Lee Johnson alluded to it following the defeat to Sheffield Wednesday.

The League Cup tie with Arsenal will bring in an unexpected bonus of funds which he may be able to use to strengthen his squad in January. His analysis of the defeats has led to an admission that they will have to address the type of players the club recruits in January, and it is clear to all that recruitment will have to be in terms of experience, strength and mobility - streetwise, savvy League One/Championship campaigners.

Callum Doyle, Dennis Cirkin and to an extent Dan Neil have been exposed through no fault of their own, but because of injuries to key players and inexperience.

Sheffield Wednesday v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by George Wood/Getty Images

All three, despite the results, still stand out as real prospects. Dan Neil is a footballer with a big future and ironically will prosper at a higher level where he will get more time on the ball. His maturity and character is apparent in his interviews. Carl Winchester has played a sterling cameo at right back, but he too was exposed at Rotherham and Hillsborough.

Injuries to Hume and Huggins have hindered, and Hoffmann has stuttered - though, he does still instil a sense of confidence.

It is easy to call for Lee Johnson’s head, but we must also remember we bought into the plan and applauded the succession of youth.

We have to remember the financial restrictions which have taken the club down this path, and we must also remember that, despite the wretchedness of the three defeats, there was in the middle of them a bodice-ripping win at Queens Park Rangers, and Sunderland are still in the promotion race.

It’s now about how Lee Johnson reacts to those defeats.

He said himself you can do three things: ‘Change the players, change the tactics or change the manager’.

The latter is tongue in cheek, but also a signal that he knows he is under pressure.

He firmly believes in the project and so he should.

If the manager has no confidence in what he’s doing, then no-one else will.

Am I concerned? Of course I am. I can’t help but look at those results at Bristol City and wonder if history is about to repeat itself - but, I also believe Sunderland have some young exciting players, and this three-week break from the league may just be the circuit breaker.

They face a BIG, BIG game against a vastly improving Ipswich when the league fixtures resume, and it will now without doubt be a critical point in the season.

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