AFTER back-to-back relegations, Sunderland are targeting an instant return to the Championship but EFL lover Gab Sutton (@_FootbalLab) has mixed views on their work this term
One To Watch | Sunderland flattering to deceive?
Before we look at where Sunderland are this season, it is important to look at it within the context of the previous two.
After finishing bottom of the Premier League in 2016-17, then bottom of the Championship the following season, many supporters felt disconnected from their club.
That was, in part, due to the regime of Ellis Short and Martin Bain, who did little to endear themselves to natives.
Towards the end of their time in the Premier League, the club handed long-term contracts to a lot of old players looking for a final pay-day, with the short-term hope of staying up for another year.
That ‘model’ has not only proved unsustainable, it is also out-of-keeping with the romantic side of football that first got fans to fall in love with their club.
Breaking that toxic cycle of cynicism and apathy was always going to be a massive first step towards getting that club back on an upward trajectory.
That cycle has been broken this season, with the spirit and morale around the club much improved.
New chairman Stewart Donald and director Charlie Methven have provided some transparency and honesty, frequently speaking to fan outlets like Roker Report, which supporters roundly appreciate.
On one occasion, Methven claimed that fans who go to the pub to watch a live stream of the Sunderland match, rather than buy a ticket, are ‘parasites’.
Initially, one would think those comments represent a PR disaster – and of course Methven has since apologised for a miscalculated use of words.
In some ways though, the fact he was willing to say what he truly felt, even if it wasn’t what everyone wanted to hear, signifies a new level of honesty in terms of the relationship between club and fans – without a small dose of healthy conflict, no bond is real or true.
Trust in youth
Jack Ross has made two bold statements early in his reign.
Firstly, he made George Honeyman captain. A local lad, hardened in the National League with Gateshead, who considers it an honour to represent his club, will set an example by showing unrelenting commitment to the cause.
Secondly, he started 16-year-old academy graduate Bali Mumba in central midfield in the opening day 2-1 win over Charlton.
Ross has tried to change all the things Sunderland have been associated with over the last decade and re-invent the club: opportunities for young, hungry players who show pride in the badge.
The boss, who won the Scottish Manager of the Year award last season for his Championship title-winning success with St Mirren, deserves credit for showing the audacity required to begin re-inventing the club’s image.
Another thing Ross has got right this season is his ability to change games.
The Black Cats have taken 19 points from losing positions, more than any other side.
The Scot's half-time team talks and his substitutions have often worked wonders.
Chris Maguire, who proved an excellent technician at Oxford prior to a difficult spell with Bury, made a huge difference from the bench in Friday’s 2-2 home draw with Accrington; if Ross and Maguire can mend any potential fragmentation in their relationship, that could be hugely important for Sunderland.
Equally, energetic utility man Luke O’Nien, who showed at Wycombe he has a can-do attitude and a real appetite for the game, has frequently made his mark as a substitute.
The same can be said of Charlie Wyke, a target man arguably stronger from the bench than starting and Lewis Morgan, an exciting winger who joined on loan from Celtic last month.
Is the plan right?
The fact that Ross has so often needed to make considerable alterations to his side mid-game shows that there has been something not quite right about them from the start of contests.
Considering that Sunderland average attendances of 31k, the most in League One by 13k, one imagines that they should be a dominant force in many of their games – Accrington, for example, get 3k at home games yet were arguably the better side in the first half of the previous meeting.
Part of this can be attributed to the re-building job following the previous two seasons – Sunderland must build a completely new team unlike some of their competitors.
Without promoting a sense of entitlement too much however, one cannot help but feel they should be establishing clear superiority from the outset in more games.
Reliance on McGeady
Aiden McGeady, who has played in Europe with Spartak Moscow and Celtic, then in the top 10 of the Premier League with Everton, is arguably the most naturally gifted individual in League One.
He was the Black Cats’ clear stand-out performer last week against Stanley; we saw flashes, particularly in the early stages, of how his cute combination play with left-back Reece James can be a real asset.
As well as flicks, tricks and inch-perfect through passes, McGeady can also strike a ball from distance.
The individualistic Irishman has scored eight goals so far, making him the top league scorer that Sunderland currently have at the club, with a large proportion of those efforts, if not all of them, coming from outside the area.
It is that reliance on shots from outside the box, which could be a concern for the Wearsiders.
Before the Accrington game, Sunderland averaged over the season 1.24 Expected Goals For (xGF) per game and 1.31 Against (xGA), giving them a ratio of 48.65%, only the 15th-best in the division.
Granted their xG stats might have improved slightly since Friday’s clash, but it looks difficult for them to sustain their current position of fourth, let alone assemble an assault on the automatic promotion places.
If we look at their competitors, they have all enjoyed their best patches of form due to a clear game plan that allows them to create clear cut chances.
For Luton, it has been full-backs stretching the play, for Barnsley, slick interplay in tight areas, for Doncaster, the rotation of the midfield, for Portsmouth, quick counter-attacks out wide.
For Sunderland, it feels like the game plan has been to show a lot of passion to please fans and hope McGeady can produce a moment of magic.
While Jack Ross deserves credit for certain aspects of his work, the next step is to offer more concrete ideas in terms of his side’s use of the ball.