It is getting on for three calendar months since Lee Johnson was appointed as head coach of SAFC on a two and a half year contract, after the release of Phil Parkinson late in 2020. At the time there were mixed responses from fans to Johnson’s appointment, with many clamouring for Gus’s return, then later hoping for SKP or others.
Now we are getting past the ‘bedding in’ period of Johnson’s role - which included a somewhat challenging January window under salary cap restrictions - questions are starting to mill around for me.
Among them I am asking myself whether we have sufficient reasons to be cheerful in this time of countrywide lockdown, where any reason to be smiling is more than welcome.
Granted, we won 4-1 recently in a game we all saw as a potential major challenge against a fellow promotion hopeful in Doncaster, and we also schooled perennial banana-skin team Burton with a 3-0 away win last Saturday, but a couple of good results achieve nothing, so what about wider than that?
Since joining the Roker Report team I have recognised that I am one of the more optimistic members of the collective. Even given that stance, reflecting back on the last 2-3 months (which we need to remember included a Covid break to allow the pandemic to get out of the squad), it is hard to decide if we can be happier overall with where we are at, or whether we would have been in a better place with Parky still at the helm.
1) We have a developing identity
In my view, one of the major gains across the last 2-3 months is the establishment of a team identity, and an ethos that the leaders at the club are trying to take the team towards. Under the leadership of Parkinson and earlier I’d argue for some time we were using archaic footballing styles to do what we could with what we have, with no real vision or purpose other than ‘get promoted ASAP’. We certainly had a dire lack of a plan B when the ‘be strong at the back and let’s nick one’ Parky approach fell short. This was mainly I suspect so owners could go up, sell up, cash in and leave with a healthy profit from what would be a Championship club.
While I agree with many other fans that the management spiel from Johnson is at times a little full on, I would firmly argue with the approach of numerous former managers and coaches we would not have bounced back against Doncaster Rovers as we recently did, and our prospects of doing that on a regular basis demonstrated with the subsequent Burton victory would be way lower with Phil still in the hot seat.
Yes, the formation tactics and strategy are not totally honed in as yet, nor are the ideal starting eleven for the pair of formations Johnson seems to defer to (4-2-2-2 or 4-3-3). Nothing as yet is cast in stone (especially our defence), but behind that lack of clarity we do at least have a clearer identity and vision with which we can try to tailor our collection of players, tactics and strategy. For that I am very pleased, as that fundamental requirement has been missing for way too long.
This keystone of all clubs is clearly part of the new owner and coach’s long term playbook, which really warms my feelings for the future.
The challenges still to come?
Establishing a vision, strategy, values and embedding them into a squad of players and their coaching and leadership team such that they make a regular and positive difference is not an overnight task, and even 2-3 months in expecting a major step in benefits is asking a lot. For the time Johnson has had, I think it is fair to say he has made as good a fist of it as anyone could have, given the start point and the level of change he had to kick into on the 5th of December last year. His main challenge is to continue to stick to this ethos with help from owners old and new, and to get more from it over time. Ideally if we can see more results and performances like the recent ones, and more regularly, this will protect the approach from being derailed even when on-field challenges may suggest otherwise.
2) Competition for positions, even in defence
Despite the transfer window being subject to what many feel were illegal constraints (which I agree with Lee Johnson amounted to something close to a restriction of trade) the January work done by Speakman and Johnson has created more competition for starting shirts than we had before, and has cleared out more deadwood.
While an extra keeper may have been worth securing (maybe with Patterson being sent out on loan, if that meant he would have played even more) we now have several options in most areas of the park, despite major injuries taking out players that undoubtedly would have featured highly in the coach’s plans.
Even in our defensive line - which is obviously the weakest zone of our squad especially right now - Vokins was added in the window. Yes, he still needs to show his true worth after a rocky introduction, and McFadzean is arguably the weakest link in our much changed rear guard, but we are very blessed with young Sanderson, who weirdly will now get to shine way more due to Willis’ tragic season ending knee injury and Wright’s recent calf niggle, which hopefully should be sorted in 2-3 weeks.
With Sanderson complemented by the solid and confident looking Connor McLaughlin (who was a real plus in the win versus Doncaster, and again away at The Pirelli) plus our own “Swiss Army Knife” Luke O’Nein used as a CB in the cup semi and at Burton, we still have the skeleton of a very well drilled defensive group. Yes, several of them are playing out of position, but they are doing that very well, and they are all accepting that challenge as a chance to start in those famous red and white stripes rather than moaning about it. When Tom Flanagan is fit again along with Bailey Wright, we have some genuine back three or back four options. When Denver Hume gets back from the physio we will add a third possible left back, with him likely resuming as our starting number 3 given the performance of his cover.
Whether the system needs three at the back with wing backs (which Gooch thrived in last time out) or a back four, I feel we are staffed up okay, even in the back line and using our utility players as needed and especially when factoring in emerging youth like Younger. If the lads in the back three or four now and for the coming month can build a rapport going forward, we could do very well indeed.
The challenges still to come?
Despite having competition for places even in defence, we need to establish a long term right back and get Denver Hume back fully fit to resume his berth at left back, after which we can potentially benefit from a regular back four that can gel and grow as a unit. With that and the proof we can also operate well with a back three, we will have more options on our shape too.
If we can attack how we now know we can and defend as we once did, we will go up, without question. Until we get unfit players back, the challenge is going to be maintaining a defensive capability that lets in way less goals than we score despite the more attack based intent.
Based on both the Lincoln away game that we won 4-0 and the recent Donnie match at home/Burton away, as well as the losses to Plymouth and Shrewsbury, we will clearly give away chances and we certainly won’t always save two penalties (hats off to Burge, that was top class). We need to continue to face up to that clean sheet responsibility as a unit with whoever Johnson does or indeed can send out to play, and doing that with so many players on the treatment bench isn’t going to be easy.
3. Pace, urgency and quality in midfield
One of the main gains I have seen across the last 2-3 months is the intent to play with pace and urgency, and in the window just passed we have improved the staff in the squad to grow this concept further in my view. I would agree this has not always been executed perfectly by the players out on the paddock even post Johnson’s arrival, but the intent is there, and that again has been greatly overlooked by previous coaches and managers for way too long.
While there are a few concerns about the goal output from our midfield, with the addition of Jones and the emergence of Diamond since the days of Parkinson ignoring his potential, we have options to maintain a pace-rich attack, even when stalwarts like Gooch or McGeady have an off spell (which is far from the case of late, as Gooch was my man of the match against Burton, and McGeady is flying in every other way).
With multiple options to inject attacking intent and direct speed from the start or the bench, even though we are still quite embryonic in seeing how we can get the best from the team, I feel it will come. It can easily be said that with these options plus penetrating passing from graduating juniors like Dan Neil, and the relentless energy as displayed by O’Nein and Scowen of late, we have some pretty strong potential.
The challenges still to come?
Much like the defensive challenges, we need to find long term solutions to the issues that we have in the midfield area of the squad.
Grant Leadbitter is the consummate professional, but against teams with an active and busy, pacey midfield he is exposed in the 4-2-2-2, so we need other ways to play that layout. Alternately we go 4-3-3, though if the opposition will not be as exposed by one particular setup, we cannot let players’ limitations dictate the shape. As seen versus Doncaster, others like Power can sit in that role hence we may need to revert to that for certain opposition threats, or we may see more of what Winchester can bring into that role when back fully fit, as he did for a good returning run out at Burton in front of a back three.
We also need to get the most out of our attacking midfielders by playing in a way that enables them to run at defences at pace.
Both Jones and Diamond excelled at this aspect of their game early in their performances for the first XI. Lately they haven’t had as many of these opportunities, and Jones is very much just starting to fit in rather than outputs being refined by now, but early signs are encouraging including the assist by Jones for Wyke on Saturday. Johnson needs to give these players the best chances to succeed with the optimal way we play to assist them, and they will react by adding real value and threat.
That isn’t easy, but we have to hope very soon it will be the norm.
4. A striker in super hot form
One of the most obvious reasons to be happy right now is the epiphany of a season that Charlie Wyke is having. Before the arrival of Lee Johnson and co, he had scored 7 goals in all comps (17 matches by my workings). Since 5th December, he has more than doubled that with a further 16 goals in way less games - 15 in 16, if I can count while typing.
In simple terms, it is clear Wyke has stepped up into the football that Johnson and the squad are now offering, and he is thriving. Fans may well shudder to think what our goal tally may have been by now if Johnson had held on to Grigg and managed to get him firing too, however the decision to let him go on loan tells a tale.
Johnson has decided to back the lad who he felt would work best with the identity and tactics we are working with, and so far you have to say he has got it bang on.
The challenges still to come
In the absence of Grigg and the (rightly) departed Graham, if Wyke does take a few knocks we need the likes of O’Brien, Stewart and the other supporting forwards (some mentioned earlier) plus options from under 23s such as Curry and Kimpioka to step up and support. Nothing has been said of Stewart for some time, which is a concern in itself.
We simply must have an attacking plan B if Wyke drops off form or gets injured.
Given his tally so far he is likely to become a target for League One enforcer types, so we need Stewart and O’Brien to get going soon, and wider options need to be ready to take a chance as it arises.
So, is my optimistic grin fair at times?
Looking at all the above my view is I think we do have a number of reasons to crack at least a partial grin versus where we were late last year, and I haven’t even factored in the change of ownership this last week too much.
We are Sunderland, so we need to be ready to put the grin away at times, especially with the type of football we are looking to play creating more space for opponents as well as chances for us. I have to say though I was sort of okay with our overall situation even before that 4-1 footballing demonstration by Wyke and McGeady and co, and our team putting Burton to the sword away last weekend. My feelings about the progress in several areas covered here were only slightly changed by the results against teams like Shrewsbury and Plymouth Argyle, as the trends were still visible beneath.
We need to be ready to accept the odd defeat along with the emphatic wins, but I am ready to trust the new approach to make the latter more prevalent.
Sometimes, until you reflect back on things you forget where you were and where you are now, and you don’t recognise the upsides as well as the down sides. We have lots of games left to play and points left to play for, and we are improving many aspects of our performance as Johnson gets a grip of staff, strategy and tactics. We are steadily making up ground on the teams just above us, and staying with the top 3 by making winning a habit, ready for when they fade. That habit needs to carry on as long as possible.
My honest (but as said before, admittedly optimistic) view is we can do this top two finish, we just have to win more games, lose and draw less, and frankly do better than 4 of the 5 teams above us right now plus all those just below.
Easy eh... and definitely reason to have an optimistic smirk at least from time to time. Enjoy it while it lasts lads and lasses, once again the back half of a season is going to be an exciting ride in.