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Sunderland v Tranmere Rovers - Papa John’s Trophy Final

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Why Kyril Louis-Dreyfus was right to back Lee Johnson ahead of Sunderland’s next campaign

Sunderland owner Kyril Louis-Dreyfus recently backed head coach Lee Johnson during an interview with Talksport. Matthew Crichton discusses why that was the correct decision and why Johnson deserves a pre-season and summer transfer window before he is properly judged. Do you think keeping the ex-Bristol City boss was the right decision?

Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Sunderland need to get out of the cycle of constantly sacking managers each season

Whenever anything goes wrong at a football club, the first phrase that is raised by most is to call for the manager to be sacked.

As football becomes increasingly commercialised, managerial sackings and transfer stories dominate the news, with pundits always sat questioning if a manager should be changed.

Sometimes sackings have to happen and are justified, Phil Parkinson for example deserved to go, someone whose mentality just did not match what Sunderland required.

Having said that, often sackings are reactionary, a sign of panic, or often a way of deflecting the blame from the key decision makers at a football club.

Ellis Short’s tenure at Sunderland is an easy case study to showcase this, how many excellent managers were sacked when the problem lied off the pitch?

How many managers who had respectable CVs did Sunderland go through season after season in the Premier League? Time after time the club would allow a manager to sign players, then make a change halfway through which meant new players and new systems were required.

Constantly churning through manager after manager simply does not work (unless you are Chelsea). Managers need time to embed their philosophy, to recruit players who fit their system and to build something up.

In modern society, everyone wants things at the click of their fingers. Yes, Sunderland should not be in League One and it is a disgrace that consecutive relegations were allowed to occur, but the club is still paying for Ellis Short’s neglect, combined with the Madrox group being completely out of their depth moving from running Eastleigh to Sunderland.

The new takeover group need time to employ their staff, recruit new players and to deliver real change at this football club. Kyril Louis-Dreyfus has backed Lee Johnson and I am very pleased to see he has not panicked. He clearly understands just how huge a mess this football club is in both on and off the field.

The fact that Lee Johnson managed to rejuvenate Sunderland’s season and deliver a trophy was respectable, it only feels like he failed because of the fantastic position he managed to put the team in from the awful position he took over from.

Sunderland v Tranmere Rovers - Papa John’s Trophy Final
Lee Johnson delivered Sunderland’s first cup trophy since 1973.
Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Lee Johnson was working with a group who were part of one of the worst recruitment periods of the club’s history

It is often spoken about how good Sunderland’s squads have been across the past few seasons, but excluding our first season in League One, have they really been the best?

They may have been paid the best, but in each summer transfer window since the Premier League era Sunderland have been weakening their team.

This season for example, Sunderland lost Jon McLaughlin and replaced him with Remi Matthews, is that strengthening your squad?

Was Morgan Feeney better than Joel Lynch? Was Aiden O’Brien better than Duncan Watmore? I could continue, but my point here is that Sunderland’s summer recruitment was horrendous and only the re-signing of Bailey Wright proved to be a good piece of business.

When Sunderland were crying out for a dynamic forward, the club decided to give Danny Graham six months wages before he retired - he failed to score a league goal.

When the club needed experienced competition for Denver Hume, they opted for a League Two cheap option instead of Jordan Obita and Demetri Mitchell, Callum McFadzean proved to be a disaster of the move and he was forced to start half of the season.

Johnson inherited a one-dimensional side void of pace, height and depth, a team that lacked goals, and a side that isolated the opportunities of young players.

He instantly brought back our best player in Aiden McGeady, handed opportunities to Jack Diamond in the position he actually played in, as well as bringing Dion Sanderson into the team who thrived.

Sunderland’s recruitment last season was horrendous and none of the players we obtained improved the team. Those players were not who Lee Johnson wanted to play going forward and the fact he has opted to release the majority who were out of contract is telling.

I do not think he should be judged properly for using a group of players who were poorly put together by another manager and recruitment setup.

Sunderland v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One Play-off Semi Final 2nd Leg
Aiden O’Brien was seen as a marquee signing last summer, but he only managed to score four League One goals.
Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

Johnson had to endure a horrendous injury crisis which would have troubled any football manager

It has been spoken about time and time again, but you only have to look at Liverpool to see what losing your two/three starting central defenders can do to a team.

Johnson has spent most of his tenure in charge with Luke O’Nien as a makeshift centre-back, alongside the likes of Max Power and Lynden Gooch covering at right-back.

The team did enjoy an excellent spell during this crisis, but that was largely down to the excellent form of Dion Sanderson and once he was injured our defence collapsed.

If you want a key factor as to why Sunderland failed to achieve promotion, look at how many appearances our defenders made out of 46 league games.

  • Luke O’Nien - 38
  • Bailey Wright - 33
  • Dion Sanderson - 26
  • Callum McFadzean - 25
  • Conor McLaughlin - 25
  • Denver Hume - 23
  • Tom Flanagan - 16
  • Jordan Willis - 15
  • Arby Xhemajli - 0

You will rarely find a promoted side where only two players in a back four or five have made over 30 appearances, there is simply no consistency. How are you meant to work with a defence that is constantly changing?

Excellent football teams are built on the foundations of a solid defensive unit, something which Johnson never had a chance to create. He spoke about recruiting players who are robust and are not always injured, he did not have those players during last season.

Sunderland have never had a solid defence since the club were relegated from the Championship and it has been a leading factor as to why they have fallen short for three consecutive seasons.

Sunderland v Gillingham - Sky Bet League One
Jordan Willis is arguably Sunderland’s best contracted defender, but he looks set to miss the entirety of the 2021/22 season with injury.
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Johnson deserves a chance to work with Kristjaan Speakman and the recruitment team to assemble a new Sunderland team

As a result of the three factors I have discussed above, I believe Lee Johnson deserves a full pre-season and summer transfer window before he is properly judged as the head coach of Sunderland AFC.

The recently published retained list demonstrates that the playing staff are going to be completely overhauled, plus more sales will follow through those deemed surplus to requirements, such as Will Grigg and George Dobson.

Now that the club has made numerous off-the-field appointments, it is now time to push forward on what will be an imperative period of recruitment. It is one that should feel like our first season in League One, a new start under new guidance and a new way of working.

Johnson deserves a chance to work with players who have been recruited specifically to fit his chosen formations and style of play, players who have went through traditional forms of scouting combined with rigorous data analysis.

He deserves a full pre-season to get his philosophy across with a squad that is his, when has he had a chance during an endless Saturday-Tuesday schedule to properly work with a fully fit squad of players?

If we get to January next year and Sunderland are struggling to mount a serious promotion push then yes you can start to ask serious questions, but starting a new era for Sunderland by sacking a manager under harsh circumstances would not have symbolised change, instead it would have mirrored a past filled with endless failure.

I respect Kyril Louis-Dreyfus for not pressing the panic button and for sticking to the process of change that he is attempting to implement at Sunderland.

New Sunderland Manager Press Conference
Kristjaan Speakman was appointed as Sunderland’s Sporting Director and was the first sign of real change before Kyril Louis-Dreyfus’ takeover.
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

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