The season is now half gone and the new year is fast approaching, which makes for a good time to be retrospective on the campaign that has transpired thus far. As I pondered our Yuletide position, one figure stood out as one deserving a bit of a closer look: our gaffer, Lee Johnson.
If you look at the state of the club at the end of the 2020/2021 season and consider the massive rebuild Lee Johnson and company knew needed undertaking, I have to give full marks, 10/10, to Johnson for the work he’s done in the last four months.
Let’s look at some of the specifics as to how I’ve come to Johnson’s midterm grade.
The expectation of Sunderland this season was pretty simple, promotion or bust. The longer teams stay in League One, the more difficult it gets to find a way back out. Even though the competition is filled with the most quality in recent memory, SAFC cannot afford another year of third tier purgatory. The expectation of promotion this season, however, is lined with a feeling that it needs to be via an automatic position. The playoff route has been tried and failed and fans, as well as ownership, will be desperate to have our Championship place secured before the playoffs begin. As the season turns over the halfway point, we find ourselves in exactly that position. Top of the league and on a two-month unbeaten league run. If he’s being judged against expectation alone, Johnson is meeting those expectations – but how we’ve gotten here makes the job he’s done look even more impressive.
From time to time, Lee Johnson has faced some criticism in the area of team selection. However, I think his management of the squad so far this season has been exquisite. Early in the season, LJ was tasked with finding the right rhythm and balance for a completely renovated and inflated squad. Asked to mix in experience, new signings, and academy products to a team pushing for the league title. His choices, largely, were profoundly successful. Three full teams were assigned to early-season competitions; the league, Papa John’s trophy, and cup ties respectively. Each competition with its own squad rotations and objectives and one overarching principle at play, to get as many players integrated into the system as possible so they might be interchangeable as needed. And they have been needed. Success in Papa John’s trophy games early on led to the confidence and form for several players in November and December. Particularly Nathan Broadhead and Alex Pritchard were eased into the squad through cup ties as they worked their way into a more consistent league team picture.
This leads to the most valuable quality Johnson has displayed as 2021 draws to a close. Injury management. As Sunderland have been massively hit with injuries over the past month or so, keeping the squad intact and flourishing has been an important and perilous task. As the injuries have come, Johnson has slotted players in or adapted the system to players available and just continued plodding on. Because players know what’s expected of them, and so many players can play multiple positions as setbacks arose, adjustments were made in stride and the season continued towards its goal.
Style of play
Lee Johnson’s attacking, high pressing system has been an absolute joy to watch. There is always intent to score and push for the three points we should be expecting as a club of our stature at this level. It’s a positive arrogance that has been missing for far too long. Gone are the days of 10 men behind the ball for 80 minutes, then throwing on a second striker to try and steal a win at the death.
Passion. Animation. Desire. Arrogance. Toughness. Lee Johnson has them in bags. There have been times this season that I thought he would start levitating if he swung his arms a fraction faster as he tried to will players in the right direction. There’s also the way LJ adequately communicates, almost perfectly, overall displeasure for League One refereeing.
He loves the club. He’s loving the job. And so far this season he’s done all we can ask for. Well done to my gaffer. 10/10 for the first half. And your New Years’ resolution? Finish what you started!