As the 2022-23 Championship season enters its final eight game, we find ourselves sitting in mid-table with only a fools hope that we can achieve a top six finish. So, it leaves us questioning what we want out of what is left of the current football season.
Do we make for one last push to creep into the play-offs right at the death? Do we aim to finish as high up in the league table as we possibly can to highlight progress? Or do we look ahead to squeezing as much out of what is left by focusing on what might be of most benefit ahead of next season?
Looking at the league table as it stands going into the international break, the current top five look fairly secure, assuming Blackburn Rovers win their game in hand, which leaves potentially seven clubs down to ourselves and Preston North End, being seven points behind in 11th and 12th respectively, with half a chance of making the play-offs.
Considering the current form of the likes of Coventry City and West Bromwich Albion going into the business end of the season and remembering our longest run of successive victories this season stands stands at two, which we’ve only actually achieved twice, hopes aren’t particularly high that we’ll make it.
Going all out for that one final push sounds heroic and I don’t completely disagree with the notion of doing that completely, but it does seem at odds with Tony Mowbray’s recent mantra that he quite often chants through the media, that we are aiming to “compete” in our remaining fixtures.
That doesn’t sound like it’s our goal to go all guns blazing and increase the belief that we can make it. So it then comes down to how much we care regarding finishing, say, 12th for example, versus finishing 16th?
If the answer is that we aren’t really fussed about splitting the difference regarding what constitutes as a good or bad a mid-table finish, do we then begin preparing for next season, now?
On the pitch at the weekend, during our draw against Luton Town, we had Joe Gelhardt up top for over 70 minutes and Amad, who has been a pleasure to watch in a red and white shirt this season, came off the bench ten minutes into the second half.
As much as I have loved watching Amad and would like to continue watching him in a Sunderland shirt, would it benefit us more to give more game time to players who will be around next season as apposed to persevering with Gelhardt up top?
On the bench at the weekend, three young lads stand out in particular, Pierre Ekwah, Jewison Bennette and Isaac Lihadji. It’s clear to everyone that all three have a certain level of potential, but all three are young and are in need of minutes on the pitch if they have any chance to hitting the ground running next season.
Tony Mowbray has often raised a fair and valid point at various stages this season, that it’s difficult to fully trust some these young players to follow instructions, especially when it comes to the shape of the team out of possession, but is the risk now mitigated by the fact we have virtually nothing left to play for other than pride?
We have three players regularly appearing in the starting XI at the current time who have benefited greatly from getting a good run in the side in Trai Hume, Abdoullah Ba and Edouard Michut.
When Trai Hume first got the shirt he spent a couple of games looking nervous and stuck to playing the percentages to find his feet. As the games went on he looked better with every game until he now finds himself one of the first names on the teamsheet. Michut also looks a very different player to the one we saw via cameo’s earlier in the season and Ba has looked more confident with each of the three previous games he has started.
With eight games remaining, the likes of Ekwah, Bennette and Lihadji could get a few appearances under their belts through a place in the starting XI, without the full weight of pressure on not losing ground on the top six which has been removed.
This suggestion is not advocating wholesale changes with every game remaining, not all three players need to start every game, but there is an opportunity to get them involved from the start of games to see how they look once they have had an appearance or two to pick up the pace and the physicality of Championship football.
The underlying question is: what do we want to get out of the remaining fixtures this season? If it meant we could potentially be in a better place going into next season, then maybe it’s worth sacrificing a few results between now and May.