Proactive substitutions - does Lee Johnson deserve credit for going for it against Accrington?
Yesterday’s victory over Accrington was hardly a performance to remember, but it was the type of banana skin that Sunderland avoided, eventually showing some quality to grind out a difficult three points.
A major factor in this victory was the brilliant decision from Lee Johnson to replace Jack Diamond with debutant Ross Stewart at half-time.
Charlie Wyke was an isolated figure throughout the first-half and his partnership with Aiden O’Brien has displayed that he benefits from having someone close to him.
The Scot instantly added an extra presence up front, in a Sunderland side who were struggling to win aerial duels.
Stewart scored a clever looping head to put Sunderland in front, getting on the end of a Lynden Gooch cross to convert on his first appearance since joining from Ross County in January.
Whilst he will receive the headlines, and rightly so, I think we also have to credit Lee Johnson’s tactical knowledge and boldness to consistently make proactive changes which lead to The Black Cats securing all three points.
Whether it be a change of personnel or formation, the ex-Bristol City boss has shown he is not scared to do something if he believes it will impact the result, something in which I am thoroughly enjoying seeing game after game.
I have noticed I am becoming less worried during matches when Sunderland are not winning, as I am developing confidence that Johnson will be able to make the decisions that will sway the match in our favour - long may that continue.
Could Charlie Wyke and Ross Stewart play as a two up front?
Sunderland allowed both Will Grigg and Danny Graham to leave in January, in favour of persisting with Aiden O’Brien and Charlie Wyke, but also to make space for the arrival of Ross Stewart.
For over a month the Scot has been an enigma on Wearside, but after his excellent debut last night, questions will now be asked on whether he and Wyke would make a good partnership?
Wyke, who also scored a header against Accrington, has benefitted massively from having O’Brien by his side, but the Irishman is still struggling to score and has only five goals to his name in all competitions.
The ex-Millwall forward is praised for his tireless work-rate and link-up play, but as someone who plays as a nine or ten, you do question if his goal and assist numbers are good enough for a promotion fighting team.
Consequently, the door will be open for Stewart to prove to Lee Johnson that he is a more consistent goal scorer.
Having said that, it is imperative that he builds a good partnership with Wyke, especially given his ridiculous form this season in front of goal.
Imagine a Sunderland team with two goal-scoring forwards who work well together? Now that would take some stopping, especially when a fit Jordan Jones and Aiden McGeady are whipping crosses in.
With O’Brien still injured, Stewart may just get his chance to start against Lincoln on Saturday, but this is completely dependent on how fit he is himself.
✨ ...— Sunderland AFC (@SunderlandAFC) March 17, 2021
Ross Stewart's take on tonight's win at the Wham Stadium.
Sunderland have conceded just TWICE in eight matches - is that statistic getting enough credit?
Sunderland’s defence certainly rode their luck yesterday, particularly with Luke O’Nien enduring some difficult moments, but once again Lee Burge achieved yet another clean sheet.
Charlie Wyke’s brilliant goal scoring form often receives the headlines, but the fact Sunderland continue to show defensive resilience consistently whilst playing Luke O’Nien in central defence is absolutely fantastic.
Combine that with playing Max Power often out of position, Callum McFadzean in a four, it really is impressive that only Crewe have scored against Sunderland during our last eight games.
Plus, our most two consistent defenders across this and last season, Jordan Willis and Bailey Wright, have missed a large proportion of our games in 2021.
It links back to Lee Johnson raising the performance levels of individuals who have previously struggled.
For example, Conor McLaughlin is a polar opposite to last season, plus dropping Lee Burge, whilst was a poor choice given his replacement, appears to have raised his performance levels.
Another key reason for this of course is the emergence of on-loan defender Dion Sanderson, but in truth I am running out of ways to praise the 21-year-old, we simply have to give everything we can to ensure he returns to Wearside next season.
If you had told me when Johnson was hired we would consistently keep clean sheets without Wright, Willis, and Denver Hume I would have honestly laughed.
That is a credit to the manager for his tactical expertise and the players who have raised their game.
Losing so many influential defenders could have easily planted a nail in Sunderland’s promotion hopes, but instead, we have dealt with it brilliantly and continue to win football matches with defensive lineups that are consistently altered.