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Sunderland v Luton Town: Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Semi-Final First Leg

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What did we learn about Sunderland from last season in the Championship?

It was a thoroughly satisfactory campaign in many ways, but the question Lars Knutsen is chewing over is “What did we learn from last season in the Championship?”

Photo by Alex Dodd - CameraSport via Getty Images

Our young team plays excellent football

Perhaps it was partly fate, but our exciting style of football, where we kept the ball on the ground, was very compelling. It did not really start that way under Alex Neil, but once the Scot walked out late in August and Tony Mowbray found his feet, we started playing better, more attacking football. The 3-0 win over Rotherham that same month was notable, and in the Reading away game a couple of weeks later where Ross Stewart was absent and Ellis Simms was substituted just after the half-hour, Patrick Roberts netted two late in the first half and our goal of the season was scored in the second half by Jack Clarke.

The fate reference above is explained in that with no “target man” to play to after Simms was recalled by parent club Everton and Stewart succumbed to injury, the manager went with a different style of play; the Clarke/Roberts duo did really well for us, and the latter combined extremely well with Amad on occasions when we played either without a recognised striker or the rookie Joe Gelhardt after the transfer window. The “ball on ground” style may have been driven home and effectively forced upon us after Stewart hobbled off in the FA Cup game at Fulham late in February, but we definitely emerged as one of the Championship’s better footballing sides, even when we had nine players out through injury late in the season. To win in the way we did at both West Bromwich and Preston, in some style, to qualify for the play-offs was amazing.

This style of football may need to change pragmatically next season, as new signings may come in that could dictate a more direct style, but like many others, I enjoyed the way we played in 2022-23.

Preston North End v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Mike Morese/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

We have nothing to be scared of

There were no teams to be feared in the Championship, at least last season. Burnley and Sheffield United were promoted automatically but although we only took one point from our games against them, the late March 0-0 draw at Turf Moor, we matched them in terms of play in the fixtures.

At the Stadium of Light, the Lads were 2-0 up against Burnley before experiencing a late collapse. Against the Blades, we lost narrowly, 2-1 in both games but were not outplayed.

On other matchdays we ripped apart some very decent teams, for example, Middlesborough, Blackburn and Millwall at home, but we won eleven away games against seven at home, and I have noted some of the very fluent away performances.

I did not attend many home games in person, but I noticed some hesitancy in our play at the Stadium of Light, which was missing in away games. Perhaps the speed in the team meant that we became adept at playing on the break on our travels, where we only conceded 22 goals in 23 games.

If Sam Allardyce was our manager, he would be getting the sports psychologists in to address this hesitancy seen in some home games.

Could this be the best way forward for Tony Mowbray and his staff also?

Luton Town v Sunderland: Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Semi-Final Second Leg Photo by Andrew Kearns - CameraSport via Getty Images

Even in games against oppressive, difficult teams we somehow matched the opposition

Some teams enhance what we know as the “beautiful game” by playing flowing football. Others turn it into a physical battle or a form of aerial bombardment, as we saw in the league games against Millwall and Luton Town. We drew 1-1 twice against Luton, but the games were not pretty – despite their aggregate win in the play-off semi-final I fear for the Bedfordshire team; attempting to bully other teams does not really work in the Premiership.

We took four points from Millwall, with the away game being particularly adversarial. Defender Dennis Cirkin spent a long time out injured after being concussed on scoring the equaliser in that match. Happily he recovered, scored twice in our win at the Hawthorns, and has signed new, long-term contract at Sunderland.

In closing, I will quote the left back. He says “there are ‘no limits’ to what Sunderland can achieve and believes everyone associated with the club should be excited about the years ahead”. I am definitely excited about next season.

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