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Talking Points: Can Lee Johnson come back from our worst ever league result?

Yesterday was an absolute disaster, and five points from five games is relegation form.

Photo by Chris Vaughan - CameraSport via Getty Images

Is this the beginning of the end of Lee Johnson at Sunderland?

It would have seemed absolutely ridiculous to even contemplate that a day and a half ago, but that was before we suffered what is technically (given the level we are playing at) our worst ever league defeat, and the players put in a performance that simply said ‘we can’t be arsed’.

It was an appalling display, utterly unexplainable and totally unforgivable. The worry is, we’ve seen it before this season – against Portsmouth, Rotherham and Sheff Wed we turned in similarly poor displays and lessons were vowed to be learnt. Home truths told. Forgiveness issued. On the strength of yesterday’s game, nothing’s changed – in fact, this was worse than the lot of those other games combined.

The sad thing is – like the little girl with the little curl – when we are good, we’re very, very good. But when we’re bad we’re horrid.

So, what’s to blame? Yes we’ve got injuries, and yes we have a few new players in the squad, but that’s simply no excuse. The players simply looked in disarray, both tactically and mentally – and while you can point fingers at individual players, and rightly so, the responsibility lands well and truly on the shoulders of the manager.

There’s simply no way we should be succumbing to defeat like we did on Saturday, and turning in that manner of performance. Whatever Johnson does at SAFC he’ll be remembered for that game – just as Poyet’s remembered for the Southampton capitulation – and serious questions will be asked in the boardroom about Johnson’s suitability for the job, and rightly so.

I don’t expect the club will pull the trigger this week – he’ll get more time – but he needs to respond with wins. We’re still in a decent position in the league, but five points out of 15 so far this year, only a run of wins will now do – otherwise the club may well think that the risk of bringing a new manager in for the remainder of the season is a gamble well worth taking.

After all, while they said that last season promotion wasn’t the be all and end all, this season is a different story.

I’ve been a big advocate for managerial stability and sticking with Johnson (although you can argue in many respects the new set up with a sporting director makes the role of head coach more interchangeable than ever before, and the instability a change would cause is far less than it would have done previously), but displays like that make me seriously question that. I may feel differently after the dust has settled, but my immediate feeling is that he’s in more danger than he ever has been at SAFC.

Bolton Wanderers v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The switch to a back four simply didn’t work – but why?

I was surprised when the teams were announced to see we’d reverted to a back four, after looking reasonably solid against Portsmouth in a five. I thought we’d retain the same starting XI and formation as we had last week, and in hindsight we should have done.

There’s been a lot of talk post match about the fact we can’t play a back four, which I don’t agree with – we have successfully played with a four for the majority of the season. However, the enforced change when Bailey Wright went to right back and Gooch was deployed as a left wing back worked well – we looked solid, and had seemed to have hit on a formation that worked for the players. With Flanagan dropped to the bench and Winchester – who was among many who had an abject game – at right back, we looked weak as anything; particularly worrying given Batth was supposed to sort this out.

It’s hard to explain why we look so vulnerable in a four, but my instinct is due to a lack of strength and protection from the central midfielders. In a back four they have more defensive responsibility than in a five.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see us go back to a five next week, as being solid and hard to beat will undoubtedly be the tone of things over the coming days, but ultimately I think yesterday was less about formation and more about a shockingly bad mentality. Which is arguably more of a concern.

Bolton Wanderers v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Doyle apologies to fans after the game
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

It was a rare game that no one could hold their head up – everyone had an off day

Usually when you get beat there are a few players who ‘didn’t deserve to be on the losing side’. Yesterday, all of them did – and they deserved to be on a side that got beat by 6.

Hoffmann was all over the place, as evidenced by the first goal. Winchester had a shocker. Batth looked all at sea in a four and scored an OG Santiago Vergini would have been proud of. Doyle looked lost, Cirkin, it’s sad to say, disinterested.

In midfield, Dan Neil had his worst game for us – he was anonymous – and Corry Evans showed nothing of the leadership and organisational skills he supposedly has. Gooch, Embleton and Dajaku failed to get hold of the ball and do anything from an attacking perspective, while Ross Stewart was firmly in Santos’s pocket for the second time this season. From the bench, Pritchard, Clarke and Roberts offered nothing bar a nice touch or two, but to be fair to the trio the game was lost before they stepped foot onto the field.

It’s a major concern.

Bolton Wanderers v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
No one emerged with any credit yesterday
Photo by James Gill - Danehouse/Getty Images

Where do we go from here?

It’s a massive week ahead for the club. Reinforcements are clearly still needed in defence, midfield and attack – and with the transfer window shutting tomorrow we need to act. We simply need more strength, more know how and, sadly, more desire in the team – and quickly.

For Lee Johnson, how he responds is critical. He came across as a broken man post-game, and that’s a concern. Only a good run of wins will do for him now – which pains me to write, because I genuinely like him as a manager, and the way he comes across. He wants to do well here, he’s bright, he thinks deeply about the game, and he has done a lot of things well. He’s got the team playing – when they’re on their game – some of the best football we’ve seen for a long time. But displays like we turned in yesterday border on the unforgivable.

We have Doncaster at home on Saturday, followed by away trips to Cheltenham and Wimbledon, and home games with MK Dons and Burton.

It feels like, after this, only 15 points will be an acceptable return from those five games.

After all, we have Wigan away after that.

Yes, it’s a ‘long-term project’ but promotion this season is the short term aim. It’s imperative in my view that we go up this year – we’ll not hold on to the likes of Stewart and our other better players if we don’t.

This wasn’t a ‘blip’ or a ‘one-off’. Heavy away defeats are now becoming part of what we do, and this has to be rectified immediately.

Rightly or wrongly, that’ll be it for a lot of supporters who weren’t sure about Lee Johnson, and he’s drinking in the last chance saloon now. But his approach to away games has been ushered out of the door and chucked out feet first.

If we can sort things out away from home we still have a good chance of going up with Johnson in charge. And I sincerely hope we do.

But if we don’t sort out our away form sooner rather than later, we could be in for another spin on the Sunderland managerial merry-go-round.


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