At about quarter past six on Tuesday evening, I finished work and jumped onto the SAFC website to log in and buy a pass for the Tranmere pre-season game. I already knew that the coach intended to rest some players for our final away friendly, as he had stated that intention after the 4-0 win away at Harrogate.
Knowing that fact didn’t greatly put me off paying six quid for the pass though, as I was aware this may mean we get to see some of the wider (maybe newer and/or younger) squad members build up their pre-season match minutes, and maybe even stake their claim for a slot in the first eleven against Wigan, a game fast approaching in early August.
From my perspective, it could be argued this pre-season is one of the best chances for emerging and new talent to shine at Sunderland, given the exodus since last season and the slower than ideal influx of replacement players thus far.
Potentially exciting times to be an U23s or even U18s player.
When the team sheet was released, even I (as someone expecting a smattering of youth and new faces) was quite surprised with the selected eleven, and the bench that was intended to complement the starters.
Of the starting eleven only Wright, O’Brien and Grigg could be classed as full on first-team players (granted, with varying levels of success). The likes of Neil, Diamond and Younger were in there too, with a number of first-team appearances under their belts, a chunk of which were gained in last seasons Papa John’s trophy success for a couple of those.
It was clearly a very young and lesser experienced team and bench, but they were there to play a team who only recently dropped into League Two, who took us very close at Wembley in the cup, and who featured hardened veterans like Jay Spearing.
This was no doubt going to be a test for the Sunderland youngsters across the park, potentially including Patterson in nets.
Given the team sheet which Johnson elected to use, and the bench he put out to support it (which included no senior players at all, with Kimpioka likely the most senior rep, which is saying something), “what are we expecting to get from this” started to pop into my mind…. what was Johnson trying to achieve and learn from the game with this set of players?
After a steady but uninspiring 0-0 stalemate, I watched Johnson’s post-match comments, and in that Johnson stated he was looking for “understanding, passion, effort and commitment”. In his view he got those things, and he claimed the game to be a successful test, which “gives us a chance to bed them [the less experienced players] in, and to integrate them moving forward”.
I have to say, I am not totally aligned with Johnson’s post-match view, though I am in a few places. But do we agree he got what he (and we all) felt was needed?
Let’s start at the back. Yes, Bailey Wright was always pretty comfortable, and between him, Richardson, Younger and Dyce they ensured the opposition midfield and attack gave Patterson very little to do, in either half.
They worked pretty well at bringing the ball out from the back (with the odd hairy moment which they dealt with quite well, including Patterson taking control when needed). They kept a clean sheet, including when the likes of Almond were added later on. That has to be seen as a success. They did show many of the attributes Johnson mentioned - a developing (but in my view not fully embedded) understanding; passion was aplenty, lots of strong tackles and no-nonsense impact, good to see in numerous instances of “boy versus man”; and yes, effort and commitment were there too.
All in all, though the defence is the area that I remain most concerned about with the lack of both senior full-backs and ongoing reliance on Flanagan being likely, they did well against the offence of a decent Rovers eleven.
What about the midfield?
This is an area where I felt the performance was reasonably solid too if I am honest. For all the same reasons that the defence had odd errors and had to clean up now and again, the midfield were not perfect, but were not too bad either.
They lost possession too easily at times, and regularly failed to find the pass to set attacks away, with the exception of Neal who did find a couple of slotted balls, as he seems able to in most games of late. But this was a midfield containing Taylor and Wilding, lads who have only really featured for U18 and U23 sides before, and for me we have to acknowledge they did okay.
They stood up against more senior opposition in terms of experience and age, and they had a go. They didn’t create a huge amount for Grigg and O’Brien, nor for Benji later on, but they didn’t get overrun either. For the past couple of seasons, we have had games played out using our own senior level 1st team players, with midfields containing experience like Leadbitter, Scowen and Power, and they did nothing better than similarly “cancelled out” midfield displays at times.
So, are any of these lads going to oust Pritchard, Evans, O’Nien, Gooch or Winchester? Probably not. But they did themselves no real harm, and showed why they are on the fringe of being ready if we need them.
It has been seen in pre-season games already that if you are good enough you are old enough (ask Doyle’s coaches at Man City, and anyone who has watched him in red and white), so I think it was a reasonably successful outing in the middle of the park.
For me Neil, Wilding and Taylor look worthy of a spot in our cup sides, if not a bench spot in the first team, especially if we need some capable lads at times of injury or while waiting for new signings to be locked and loaded, and fully fit.
And so we move up front - this for me was the least impressive aspect of our team’s performance. Starting with Diamond, Grigg and O’Brien up front, you have a front three which could very well appear on a team sheet in a League One match, especially if injuries or suspensions left the squad short with attacking options.
Although that was the case, let’s not beat about the bush here, with the exception of Diamond they created very little and were far from clinical enough. O’Brien was put through early on with a great ball from Neil, but seems to have forgotten how to shoot. Grigg missed another header from 7 yards, which would not have counted even if he was more clinical as he had wandered offside anyway (and hence didn't even make the SAFC highlights clip).
While Neil helped O’Brien out with a long range effort that forced a save, Grigg was nowhere near the parry. Going back to those things Johnson wanted, I saw very little understanding up front, variable passion at best, and while effort and commitment were okay, the achievements were quite disappointing.
So what do I think Johnson did get from the game? The answer, at a minimum, is an abundance of data about the lads he may consider for the 1st team and its fringes. He played 7 or 8 of our junior squad against a decent team of first 11, upper league 2 players.
We now have data about how these lads can now play in that setting, against that type of footballer, in a style the gaffer clearly wanted to test. We have managed to gather that data without losing a pre-season match, without any injuries, and all while encouraging the young squad members there may be a route to first-team footy for them.
We also got data about a couple of the first team players who we need to decide how much we invest in this season to come. O’Brien arrived with the reputation of being a championship level attacker, but he hasn’t really fired as yet.
With Grigg, well we all know what was expected of him, but we didn’t see much of Will last season. The coach needs to decide if he feels Grigg and O’Brien are something to build around or to replace, either with youth or with new signings. It isn’t only the new signings that need to fit the data model. Existing players need to fit too.
One of the unquestionably positive changes that KLD has made since taking over the club is his investment in a data-driven decision-making capability. We have invested in data and analysis staff and systems, and as a result of that we have to accept at times that pre-season games, early cup matches and even last twenty-minute stretches in games that are already well won (wouldn’t that be nice!) may be used to add to the data we have to feed our subsequent decisions.
Every ball that is kicked by every player now adds to the reasons they can be part of Sunderland’s success, or not. That data can be used on a game by game basis, to vary who we run out as a first 11 based on the best tactics for a win considering the opponent. I think this more than anything else is why we saw what we did on The Wirral last Tuesday night.
While the Tranmere game was odd in so many ways, I for one welcome the data that it has given our behind the scenes team. Knowledge is power, and feeds good decisions, and for too long we have relied on gut feel of the well experienced, with a smattering of luck.
The time of data-driven football is here. Maybe we need to remember that when we see a performance that feels a bit left field. Everything happens for a reason. Let’s hope the reasons amount to more success for Sunderland. Time will soon tell.