When I found out that Elliot Embleton was going out on loan, I was fuming.
In a team that has so often looked devoid of creativity, the decision to loan out one of our most creative midfielders seemed ridiculous. In fact, I immediately took to Twitter to vent my dissatisfaction.
Never really been a good fit at Sunderland. Needs to go out and get some proper League One plodding experience. Learn to pass sideways, move the ball much slower, try to be less creative, less movement off the ball, etc...— Paul Fletcher (@elcapitanfletch) February 1, 2021
Dare to plod, Embo https://t.co/3M6ZGJaYCK
But after having had some time to reflect, I’m not sure that I agree with myself any more.
The two key questions that I’ve been asking myself are, “would Embleton play regularly for Sunderland?” and “should Embleton play regularly for Sunderland?”.
In response to the question of ‘would he’, that’s a clear no. That question answers itself, given that Speakman, Johnson and the player himself were all in agreement that it would be best for him to go to Blackpool to get more game time. It’s clear that he wasn’t going to start very many games for Sunderland.
In response to the question of ‘should he’, that seems to be more up for debate and it would be fair to say that the fanbase is divided on Embleton. For every supporter that was disappointed to see him go, you can find a supporter who was happy to see him go. From my comfortable seat on the fence, I’d say that Elliot Embleton is the kind of player who I would like to see playing regularly for Sunderland.
However, he probably shouldn’t play regularly in this current Sunderland team.
The squad of players we have available dictates the style of football that we have to play and based on that, Elliot Embleton isn’t a good fit. Meaning it’s probably a wise move to send him out on loan rather than try to squeeze him into this Sunderland team like a square peg in a round hole.
With the majority of the squad inherited from Ross and Parkinson and the games coming thick and fast, Lee Johnson has been left with little choice but to play Parkyball 2.0. A style of play in which probably won’t get the best out of Embleton. My impression of him in a Sunderland shirt is that he seems to play football in fast forward compared to those around him. He’s constantly on the front foot looking for quick runs ahead of him, the kind that Wyke and O’Brien probably won’t be making regularly.
Parkyball 2.0 might seem like a harsh description. Although I don’t believe that our playing style has changed a great deal - we’re still relying on a combination of long balls into the forwards and crosses into the box from our wide players and full backs - it has certainly been upgraded. The upgrade to 2.0 is noticeable in the improvement in the tempo we play at (at least until we go a goal ahead), the quality of our deliveries into the box, the increased numbers we are getting in and around the box and the better movement inside the box.
Johnson deserves a lot of credit for overseeing these positive changes. Playing O’Brien in the target man role (a role that Charlie Wyke has struggled to perform throughout his whole Sunderland career) is proving to be a great decision. It’s no coincidence that as O’Brien works his socks off and stretches the defence, Wyke is able to find more space and score more goals.
Add to this the promotion of Diamond from the fringes, the reintegration of Aiden McGeady from the wilderness and the ‘masterstroke’ of switching Power to right back - all of these factors mean that we now look like we can build an attack much more quickly, deliver more threatening balls into the box and create better chances.
Obviously there’s still a lot of room for improvement. The performances certainly aren’t perfect and the consistency still leaves a lot to be desired. But there are some good signs that leave me optimistic that we should at least make the playoffs, even without Embleton.
So if we don’t need him, why have we given him an extra year on his contract?
Planning for the future - this is unlike Sunderland!
The fact that Embleton has signed a contract extension is a good thing, in my opinion.
While he may not be a key player for Sunderland in the short term, the management have recognised that he could potentially be a key player in the long term. If Embleton were playing in a team built around the likes of Gooch, Neil, Diamond, Hume and a new striker with bags of pace / intelligent movement, then it might be a different story. In the long term, if Speakman and Johnson manage to stay in their roles for a while, maybe it will be a different story.
Previously, I have suggested that in order to achieve short-term success and get us out of this league, Johnson may have to be flexible in his approach and focus on substance over style. I think the fact that he’s handed Embleton a contract extension and let him go out on loan shows pragmatism. I’m hoping it’s the sign of both a manager and sporting director that have one eye on the short term and one eye on the long term.
Johnson is not stubbornly saying ‘this is the way I want my team to play and we’ll continue this way regardless’. He seems to have accepted the limitations of his squad in the current situation and decided to play to its strengths. This is absolutely essential if he wants to stay in the job long enough to achieve his long term ambitions.
As much as people from within the club and outside the club can preach about long term planning and implementing a football philosophy, Speakman and Johnson are both experienced enough to know that if they don’t achieve promotion this season, they could both be under pressure.
Whether this is right or wrong is an entirely different question but it’s the reality of modern football. Together, they could make huge strides off the field. They could have all the young academy players really embracing their philosophy, playing attractive football and winning all their games. They could put a stop to the exodus of our most promising 16/17 year olds to premier league clubs. They could overhaul the recruitment system and bring in better players for less money. All of these things would surely benefit the club in the long term. But if the first team results aren’t good enough, then Speakman and Johnson might not be around to reap the rewards.
The key to their success will be finding a formula that combines short-term results on the field with long-term progress off the field. If they find this winning formula, then they won’t need to be looking over their shoulders. Their handling of Embleton’s contract renewal and subsequent loan seems like a step in the right direction – but only time will tell.
Personally, I always like to be optimistic. So I’m hopeful that this will be a good move for Embleton. He’ll do well for Blackpool (especially against our promotion rivals), come back to Sunderland an improved player for the experience, have a cracking pre-season and then play a key role for us in our first season back in the Championship in six months time.