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Sunderland One Year On: A more defensively robust upgrade, or are appearances deceiving?

With more physical presence and a targeted recruitment attempt to address our height deficiencies, the current Sunderland crop look more robust than at the same stage last season. But do the stats back up this impression?

Photo by James Holyoak/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

A lot can change in a short space of time in the Championship but, 16 games in, it feels safe enough to assume that the danger of Sunderland suffering second-season syndrome has passed. After effortlessly adapting to the step up from League One last season, Sunderland have maintained that momentum into their second season in the second tier.

Much of what has been served up on match days remains reassuringly familiar to fans who enjoyed the fluid football on display last season.

The season so far seems to have fulfilled the promise of continuing with what worked so well whilst also addressing the undoubted vulnerabilities within the squad.

Blackburn Rovers v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

With the international break offering a momentary pause in the hectic Championship calendar, now is as good a time as any to reflect on the ways in which the current Sunderland side has improved on last season’s version.

Gut instinct suggests a key difference lies in the increased physicality of the current squad and the growth, of a less tangible kind, shown by our young players with a season of Championship experience behind them.

Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the middle of the park where Jobe, Ekwah and a flourishing Dan Neil, finally showing the consistency and quality that still piques Premier League interest, offer a dominance that was worryingly absent on occasions last year.

At full-back, Hume’s development has been particularly impressive and Huggins has shown enough, despite injuries hampering his acclimatisation at this level, to offer solidity and reliability in an area of the park that Sunderland have lacked for too long.

The striker options remain unsolved and the contrast with last season’s early form of Stewart and, to a lesser extent, Simms is one that refutes the overall impression of continuous progress. Yet this is more than compensated for by the goal contributions across the team and the glimpses of potential displayed by the likes of Rusyn and Mayenda.

Sunderland v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship - Stadium of Light Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

Corners, whether defending or attacking, no longer respectively instill fear or disinterest, and the overall impression of the side after 16 games is one that is more organised and resilient yet still capable of incisive, free-flowing football that keeps opponents on their toes.

Yet impressions, if not outright misleading, only paint a part of the picture. After 16 games last season, Sunderland kept 5 clean sheets and had an expected goals against score above 1 in 7 separate games. After the same number of games this season, our record in both respects remains exactly the same.

A far more noticeable difference, stats-wise, has been our improved possession this season. In 5 games so far we’ve had 66% or more possession. We never dominated possession in a match to this extent throughout our first 16 games last season. In fact, we only managed that level of dominance 4 times throughout the season.

Possession isn’t everything, of course, and the match in which we’ve had the lowest possession this season, only 1/3 against Southampton at home, saw our biggest win whilst our second-lowest possession, at 42%, saw us beat Blackburn by a seemingly comfortable 3-1 scoreline.

However, both games were outliers to how Sunderland typically play over 90 minutes. Against Southampton, our lead came so early and became so comfortable that possession could be squandered without damage whilst Blackburn, despite the final result, caused problems that disrupted our natural possession-based game.

Sunderland v Southampton FC - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

This isn’t to imply that the stats contradict the impressions we may have of a more resilient Sunderland this season, merely that the resilience is shown more through a greater ability to win and maintain possession rather than through greater solidity in defence.

If anything, the statistics are a testament to an improved composure and self-assurance within the team and so reinforce rather than refute the gut impressions from our play so far.

Perhaps more surprisingly, given this year’s striker concerns compared with last year’s early season form of Stewart and Simms, our attacking threat is the other most noticeable difference revealed by a cursory glance at the stats from our first 16 games.

Sunderland v Blackburn Rovers - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Lee Parker - CameraSport via Getty Images

So far Sunderland have returned expected goal figures of at least 1 in 14 games out of the 16 played so far. This was achieved only 9 times by the equivalent stage last season. Improved striker options would enhance the side’s ability to exploit this increased number of opportunities but the fact remains that Sunderland remain a potent attacking threat despite no goals scored by a recognised striker.

Expectation levels across the fanbase are naturally varied but the base expectation is to see a year-on-year improvement, if not in results then at least in performance.

Taking comfort in statistics is rarely warming when the match day experience is one of heightened tension and anxiety. Although it’s a forlorn hope to expect any Sunderland game to be free of tension, this season has largely felt more comfortable than in many a year and the stats suggest this is more than just an illusion.


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