December 2021 - how did that go?
Back in early December last year, we ran an article looking ahead to the busy festive period, asking a few of the Roker Report panel how many points would be “good enough” to keep ourselves in the automatic promotion mix.
In that item, I and Andrew felt 12 points would be a good return from the 6 December matches, with our continuation of the 2 points-per-game pace being the primary ask.
Our Aussie mate Martin asked for one more point (13) from the 6 ties, while Paul was happy with anything from 9-10 points upwards, as long as we played well and didn’t get any more injuries.
So here we are in January, and we are nothing short of revelling in our 14 points from the 6 games across the last month of 2021 (an average of 2.33 per match). We are sat firmly in the top two, with a healthy 4 point buffer between SAFC and the chasing pack in the playoff slots from third down to 6th.
So how did December go? We did bloody marvellous!
We have more than exceeded the asks of all the lads in that early December piece, and we are in as strong a position as we have ever been at this level since our double drop, in my view.
Hmm…we aren’t top right now. How well-positioned are we?
While we lost our top of the league status just after new year, a quick check of the table does show we have some breathing space to build from. In addition to our gap above 3rd place Wigan, the top 6 have a further 4 point buffer between Plymouth in 6th, and MK Dons in 7th.
As often happens in all leagues, it may now be the case that the cream of this league is starting to rise to the top as we circumnavigate the halfway point of the season, and head towards the business end of the campaign. It certainly feels to me like a mini peloton of teams are shaping up to break away from the field, reducing the potential contenders in the fight for promotion and playoff honours, which is now only a few months away.
It cannot be denied that our run of 4 wins and 2 draws last month (and the nine game unbeaten run in the league behind that) have superbly reinforced our position to either get up in the automatics, or to feature very strongly in the playoff places. Like many Sunderland fans, however, I would very much prefer the former to the latter, as no doubt would the lads and the coach.
The numbers only tell part of the story. How are we really doing?
Ignoring the maths, the other real positive looking back on the last month for me is not just the results, but how we have played, and I include the 5-1 away loss to Arsenal in the cup in that statement.
We are starting to see what the coaching team have been trying to implement as a playing style and tactical ethos, something they have been toiling over for a number of months.
Even though we are still injury-ravaged, we are now executing that strategy and its tactics very well, and doing so repeatedly game on game against opponents from the top half to bottom four.
This is at least in part due to the team almost picking itself, due to the thin layer of cover we have across positions from injuries, and a smattering of Omicron diagnoses.
In many ways though, when in a good run of confident form that self-picked first-XI can be a good thing (as mentioned by Lee in a recent post-match interview). The strategy is sticking more and more with this tight nucleus of quality players, and the first XI are gelling around that strategy, and building bonds and playing understanding with each other too. We are seeing the best of a quality midfield, while doing well with a depleted backline and forwards list.
We as fans and spectators are benefitting significantly from this situationally-forced team selection, seeing some of the most flamboyant, attacking football that SAFC have produced in many a year. We are doing well in terms of form and team morale, as well as with the maths.
Isn’t it too early to get carried away?
Of course it is. But we have every right to be happy about where we are, and how things look right now in the league, on the pitch and around our club.
We do have to be wary of Wigan as an example, with their three games in hand on all those around them including SAFC. We can all remember, however (and not very fondly), how much more valuable actual points can be in comparison to games in hand.
When the pressure builds and you need the points to catch up, anything can happen in those congested deferred fixtures, as we know to our own demise in the past seasons spent at this level.
Thinking about it, I wouldn’t swap places with Wigan right now if I was offered all the tea in China. They do remain a potential thorn in our sides (and Rotherham’s) though, until games played even out a little, though with the progress they continue to make in cup competitions, it may be some time for that to catch up.
On further reflection of other reasons to be cautious with our optimism, we didn’t quite get through the last month of 2021 without any more injuries (as requested by Paul), but the immediate upside from that challenge is our form has not really faltered that much as a result of the treatment room filling up.
The brief loss of Winchester looks to be coming to an end, but the loss of Broadhead in the Arsenal cup game delivered a potentially severe blow to the squad, which we all very much hope will not result in him being unavailable for the rest of the season. Recent reports suggest Nathan’s recovery will be around 10 weeks, so being very optimistic (and counting from the week of the injury), that would suggest he could be back as early as March.
That recovery timeline being hit would enable young Nathan to contribute to the final ten games of the season or so, making him available for matches against the likes of Charlton and Lincoln (both away) and Rotherham (at home) in March, as well as Plymouth (away) in mid-April. He would also be a fully match fit option for the final month of the season when we will want to push our promotion hopes home against the likes of Gillingham, Shrewsbury and Cambridge at home, as well as Oxford, Plymouth and Morecambe away.
Of the present top ten in the table, only Oxford and Plymouth are in the playoff runnings, hence getting someone like Broadhead back even for the last six matches is very worth the wait.
I cannot help but relish what a super-sub he would be to bring in for that sequence of games, in addition to the signings we have already started to make and are looking to build on.
Let’s hope his recovery is as suggested, as he will be a great asset to have back, whether for ten games or the last few. He scores goals and terrorises defences with his electric pace and clinical finishing, demonstrated through his six goals in six games before he pulled up at the Emirates. Despite his injury record since joining us, he needs to stay long term for me. He has a very bright future in red and white.
When you add to the above the re-emergence of the original Hume, Cirkin, Winchester, Evans and Xhemajli as well as the new signing of another Hume (Trai) and the potential return of a certain Aiden McGeady to make what could be his final bow, we are hopefully getting out of the other side in terms of injury impact.
Let’s hope so.
OK - So it’s January 2020, what do we need this month?
Across the month of January, my view is we need to reinforce our position in the top two auto slots, and do all we can to keep those nearby playoff candidates at arm's length. We also need as many players as possible to stay fit, which can be tough as we head through the biting winter months and towards the spring.
Off the pitch, we need to hire in cover for all the areas where we have risk. That includes up front in attack, full and centre back, and maybe one more midfield general type in case of any further injury to the likes of Winch or Corry.
We only have 5 fixtures across January, due to the Fleetwood game planned for the second of this month being postponed due to Covid impacts on our visitors.
A real shame that, as the Cod Army haven’t scored a goal since the 11th December, and as one of our “bogey” teams I was hoping to take them on while we were hot and they were not. They let in five away to Accrington at the start of last month too, so missing out on playing them now, when we are in our ascendancy at the powerhouse that is the Stadium of Light, that is typical SAFC luck. Hopefully, the timing of the re-scheduled slot will not be an issue for us, or for the resulting points haul.
Looking at the five fixtures which we hope will happen this month (Covid permitting, for instance), I honestly think we have nobody to really fear at all. We should be gunning for at least eleven points, ideally more, with three wins and a couple of draws the likely mix I would call to achieve that, if I were a betting man.
Game by game is the best way - what is acceptable?
Wycombe are up first, and despite knowing their tactics will be all about preventing football rather than allowing it, we have shown in recent weeks that we are no longer the team that struggles with physicality, or who fail to put lower league teams to the sword. We scored eight unanswered goals in December 2021 against the likes of Morecambe and Doncaster, and we topped that off with a 5-0 thumping of top-ten team Sheffield Wednesday the day before New Year's Eve, ending a long unbeaten run for them.
We have clearly moved away from being the team that struggle to break down teams who may want to “park the bus”. The first ten minutes against Wednesday also made it very clear we ain’t being pushed around either.
We have sent a couple of very clear messages over the past month. Push us about if you want, and/or park the bus if you like. We now have the tactics and team spirit to treat each opponent’s approach with the contempt it deserves, and if you want to play open expansive footy, we back ourselves to our score you.
At Wycombe in January, nothing less than a draw will do for Sunderland, but we will likely nick a one or two goal win for me. Nothing flash needed, just a professional and controlled performance among those around us.
After Wycombe, we have Lincoln back at the SOL, and then Accrington away.
Lincoln have taken one point from fifteen in recent outings and are not a shadow of the outfit we battled with last season or prior, hence at our place we can and should dominate, and hopefully destroy them.
Accrington are in way better form than the Imps, with ten points from the last five outings, including a 1-0 win at home to Rotherham on Boxing Day (cheers lads!). No doubt that will be a result they will want to replicate, to beat both the present top two teams whilst playing at home at the Wham Stadium.
My view is we need to go there and get at least a draw, but I fully expect us to dominate them and take all three points if we play as we can. If we can emulate what AFC Wimbledon did a month ago (a 2-0 away win, achieved by being more clinical than “the Accy” were), then I would be very happy with that, but a point is the minimum.
Our final 2 games of January 2022 are at home to Portsmouth, and then away to Bolton.
Portsmouth are still in with a shout of promotion right now, sitting in eighth with 37 points, and unbeaten in the last five. They have had two 0-0 draws in that period though, and it is noticeable across their results that even when winning, they are not scoring a lot of goals, hence their attacking prowess is nowhere close to ours right now. I would back us to take all three points at home to Pompey almost as much as I fancy us to take all three away to Bolton.
Considering the Wanderers have lost the last three as we stand here in early January, and they have conceded 6 in the process of doing that through losing to Rotherham, Accrington and Fleetwood (who scored three), we need to go there and do a job for all three points for sure.
Unless their form greatly improves between now and the end of January, we may well put Bolton into the drop zone with an away win. If that is what is needed to raise the ranks, bring it on.
Easy then. Eleven points or more, and we are on track.
I’m not asking for much there am I? Wins against Bolton, Pompey and Lincoln, and either wins or away draws against Wycombe and Accrington. Do that and we will be on 29 games played and at least 60 points. Better than two points a game - lovely. Probably in the top two (still), and maybe top again, if Rotherham falter.
If we look back on this last month of 2021 and do as well as we did then in the first clutch of games in 2022, I am sure we will all be happy.
Whatever happens, let's keep the faith and back the lads and the gaffer.
We can do this, one game at a time.