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The Good, the Bad and the Unknown of Lee Johnson’s Sunderland tenure so far

As Lee Johnson slowly tries to shape a Sunderland team in his mould, Mark Wood looks at what has pleased us so far and what makes us (continue to) groan.

Sunderland v Gillingham - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The Good!

We are passing the ball much more

The most notable difference over the last ten games is that the team are trying to play with the ball on the deck, passing from the back through the whole side. Call it a work in progress, because it doesn’t always go right. In particular when we have a narrow lead, the ball too often goes astray, and we give away possession too easily.

No more five at the back

Right from the off in his first game, Lee Johnson dispensed with Phil Parkinson’s year-long tactic of playing a five-man defence to make us more difficult to beat. That was Parkinson’s theory at least. Adios five man defence, you won't be missed.

We are getting more men in the box

The upshot of reverting to a back four has enabled the side to get more bodies in the box when we attack. The days under Phil Parkinson where we only had one or two, or sometimes no shots on target in a game should be behind us and this has largely been true, although we still struggle to put the ball in the net at times.

Milton Keynes Dons v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by John Cripps/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Charlie Wyke has become prolific

Before the season began many were unconvinced that he could offer anything to the team, but Wyke was having somewhat of a steady return to goal scoring form until the point of Phil Parkinson’s departure. Since then, he has gone positively bonkers in front of the net with 8 goals in 9 league starts, with team instructed to play the ball to his feet in the box.

McGeady is back

Again a decision taken as soon as Johnson arrived for his first game in charge was to put the most skilful player on the clubs books back in the team after a year of exile from the squad under Phil Parkinson. All credit to McGeady in that he has taken the chance well.

We are still unbeaten away from home

And its February. Phil Parkinson can take half the credit for that, but Lee Johnson has kept that run going since he took charge. If our home form matched, we would be amongst the leaders at the top of the table.

The demise of hoofball

Tom Flanagan was still launching it repeatedly in the first half at Northampton, but after the interval he didn’t play it once. There have been a few examples of it since, but it has usually been when the defence are trying to clear their lines, and not when building an attack as with Parky ball.

Northampton Town v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Pete Norton/Getty Images

The Bad!

Our home form is bad

If we are still in League One come the end of the season this will be the reason why. Lee Johnson’s home record in the league so far is W1 D3 L2. It has to be turned on its head if we are to realise any ambition of promotion.

We are not picking up more points

Lee Johnson has an average of 1.54 points per game. Phil Parkinson had 1.53 this season. The stat that has actually improved is goals against - surprising considering we are playing with one less man at the back, and committing more men forward.

Despite this, we are still scoring around the same number of goals per league game this season (1.4) as under Phil Parkinson. In defence however, where we were conceding around 0.9 goals per game under Phil Parkinson, it has improved slightly in Lee Johnson’s eleven league games to 0.81.

We still struggle to hold the ball up

And this is despite playing two up front. Charlie Wyke is much more comfortable and effective in a two-striker system. However, holding the ball up and laying it off is not a strength of his and never will be, which means his front row partner needs to be able to do this well.

Sunderland have lacked this outlet badly at times when defending a narrow lead, with a clearance often ending up in the possession of the opposition. Aiden O’Brien hasn't played badly since he came back into the team, but he hasn’t had any stand out games either.

Sunderland v Plymouth Argyle - Sky Bet League 1 Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Unknown?


It will determine how well we do this season, and Johnson’s success at Sunderland over the following years. The fact that at this point in time he has gained roughly the same points per game as Phil Parkinson this season probably has as much to do with the fact that, up until the past week, he had virtually the same players, despite changing style and formations.

The table doesn't lie, not after three seasons and with Sunderland onto our third manager. It has to be hoped that it has been a good window for recruitment - that the players who have come in are real upgrades on what we have.

3 November 2018

Does that date mean anything to you?

For a club that has been chasing promotion from League One for three seasons it should, because it's the last time Sunderland won five successive league games. The 2-0 away win to Plymouth that day took us into second place in the league.

Any club, in any league that has aspirations of finishing top or thereabouts has to put together winning runs, and when they end, put together another one. We have a bit of form in the last six games, but it isn't enough, and more of the same will not push us into the automatic promotion spots. The new recruits have to help us put our foot hard down on the pedal, or its another tilt at the play-offs at best.

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