Sunderland drew 2-2 with Milton Keynes Dons on Saturday, picking up their 11th draw of the season, the most in League One. The result meant Lee Johnson’s side dropped out of the play-offs, falling to seventh, whilst Russell Martin’s team retained 16th place.
The Black Cats took an early lead through in-form Charlie Wyke, but were quickly pegged back from Joe Mason’s close-range effort. The Dons then took the lead when veteran striker Cameron Jerome redirected Matt O’Riley’s shot into the bottom corner, a goal which Johnson felt was offside. Sunderland’s equaliser came from a smart finish from Luke O’Nien, but despite late pressure, they could not find a late winner.
Why did Lee Johnson change the approach from Tuesday?
Following Tuesday’s 3-0 victory in the EFL Trophy, Lee Johnson received praise for selecting a more energetic and dynamic Sunderland side, with plenty of pace on the counter and legs to to counteract MK Don’s possession style.
However, Saturday’s team selection had two key changes that massively counteracted that, the choices to play Grant Leadbitter and Aiden O’Brien alongside Charlie Wyke.
Firstly, the decision to play the 35-year-old over Josh Scowen was astounding - Leadbitter’s game is all about what he does on the ball, but during fast-paced end to end games he does not possess the energy nor speed to do this.
Scowen is less effective on the ball, but he is an endless runner who thrives on closing down and being a non-stop nuisance for the opposition - would it not have been more effective to start Scowen, and bring Leadbitter on in the latter stages where he would have more space with the ball against tired legs?
Then you have the decision to start O’Brien and Wyke, which was the key tactical switch as the team lost the energy and pace of Gooch upfront. The American would have been perfect for closing down Dons defender Harry Darling, who regularly distributed long-range passes to fire his side onto the attack.
By pushing Gooch outside, Sunderland lost pace upfront, but also it meant both Jack Diamond and Jordan Jones were dropped to the bench, two who impressed on Tuesday.
Jones may be lacking in sharpness having not played much football, but I would have much rather have seen Diamond on the right with Gooch upfront alongside Wyke.
This would have given Sunderland more pace going forward and would have maintained a similar approach from Tuesday’s cup fixture.
It was the first time I was massively confused by Lee Johnson’s approach to a game, having played so well just days before. Although statistics do suggest Sunderland created more chances on Saturday, defensively we were far more open in midfield and our second-half shot count was largely down to the match being so open.
Is Aiden McGeady proving Phil Parkinson was wrong to exclude him?
Now he has regained his fitness, Aiden McGeady is starting to show glimpses of the form he displayed under Jack Ross.
Despite missing a chance he had to score in the latter stages, the Irishman was involved in everything Sunderland created going forward and achieved two assists (even if one was a horrendous shot).
The 34-year-old has now scored four goals and created four since his first-team return and is the club’s fourth top scorer, despite playing far fewer games than most.
McGeady’s dribbling ability is unmatched throughout the Sunderland squad, his ability to shift the ball either side to create space for a shot or cross is excellent, and it is what has made him a crucial player instantly under Lee Johnson.
The manager has shown he is not afraid to criticise McGeady for his defences lapses, such as against Plymouth, but you can see from his work rate he is working hard, and he made a sliding tackle on Saturday that you would never have seen him make under the previous manager.
His recent performances really make you question Phil Parkinson’s decision to exclude him, the ex-Bolton boss often referenced the reasoning behind the decision being to allow younger players to come in, but his utilisation of Jack Diamond as a backup full-back completely counteracts that.
Was the board trying to push a player on high wages out, or could Parkinson just not handle McGeady’s personality? Perhaps he saw him as too big a challenge to his leadership, regardless, Sunderland appear far more dangerous offensively since McGeady returned to the first-team setup.
Are Sunderland overplaying 35-year-old Grant Leadbitter?
I have already mentioned above my questioning of whether it was right to start Leadbitter on Saturday given the type of match, but I was even more surprised to see he played 90 minutes.
It is important to note that Grant Leadbitter has been fantastic throughout this season and has proved the majority of Sunderland supporters wrong that he was finished in professional football.
He has also overcome difficult personal battles and is a fantastic role model to any Sunderland supporter, but my question here is whether Lee Johnson needs to rest him more given the number of minutes he is playing at 35.
The club are already playing two fixtures per week which is increasing injury frequencies, but also now Sunderland have transitioned to a 4-2-2-2 system, the two central players have to cover more distance.
Previously Leadbitter had Max Power and Josh Scowen in front of him, and he sat deeper, now when he is in a two there is far more running involved.
His revolves around his distribution on the ball as more of a deep-lying playmaker, but against energetic fast passing midfield Leadbitter can often find himself overrun, especially during end to end fixtures.
Leadbitter has been named in the Sunderland matchday squad more than any other first-team player and only Bailey Wright has played more minutes than him this season.
The 35-year-old has only been substituted off three times, compared to Chris Maguire who has been removed 11 times.
Since Carl Winchester has been brought in, plus Dan Neil has been prevented from leaving on loan to challenge the first-team, is it really necessary to play Leadbitter so often?
The question here is, are Sunderland overplaying Grant Leadbitter, or does he simply possess fantastic fitness levels which mean he does not require resting?