Top of the table Sunderland are showing signs that they could finally be serious contenders for automatic promotion from League One. Now in their fourth consecutive season in England’s third tier, head coach Lee Johnson and his staff have built a squad that has seen Sunderland improving with each and every game. Should they be able to keep up their consistent performances and results, the Black Cats could prove difficult to stop this season.
Table Topping Sunderland Improving With Each Game
Major Overhaul Paying off
Following a major overhaul in the playing squad over the summer, Lee Johnsons’s new look first team have hit the ground running. Just one defeat in a game that was arguably their best performance of the season has seen the Black Cats top the table at this early stage.
Seven victories has seen the Red and Whites progress to the third round of the Carabao Cup and set the pace in League One so far. With confidence flowing through Johnson’s young and hungry team, this is their best chance of securing promotion back to the Championship.
With nine new players arriving and youngsters getting their chance, we take a look at each department of the Sunderland squad and how they have come together to produce much-improved performances and results.
Goalkeeper and Defence
The only area of the field that has seen inconsistency is in goal. Last season’s number one, Lee Burge, began the season in goal but, following injury, youngster Anthony Patterson took over. Now, Lee Johnson, has deadline day signing Ron-Thorben Hoffmann at his disposal. The 6ft 4in German arrived on loan from Bayern Munich, and was immediately put into first-team action. Understandably his debut was nervy but he showed enough quality to convince fans that he will only grow in confidence.
In central defence, Northern Ireland international Tom Flanagan and 17-year-old Callum Doyle have developed a formidable partnership. Both central defenders have not put a foot wrong with Flanagan proving doubters wrong following several unconvincing performances over the past two seasons. Doyle, the on-loan centre back from Manchester City, is performing well above his years and is destined for a bright future.
At left-back, Dennis Cirkin, signed from Tottenham Hotspur this summer, has become a regular and is improving with each game. Denver Hume, the first choice over the past two to three seasons, has finally signed a new deal and is expected to compete for the left full-back role.
At right-back there has been the surprise of the season so far. Midfielder Carl Winchester, signed in January from Forest Green Rovers and due to a lack of options, Lee Johnson has played Winchester as an emergency right-back with surprising results. In seven games so far, Winchester has not only excelled beyond expectations defensively but has contributed effectively going forward. Two goals have come his way so far, one a long-range effort to win the game against AFC Wimbledon and an assured finish following an excellent team move to clinch three points in their last game against Accrington Stanley. With a pass success rate of 82.8%, according to whoscored.com, he rarely loses the ball too. If Winchester can keep up his current form, he is a cult hero in the making.
Sunderland have conceded five league goals in their opening six games as they top the table. With their new look defence improving with each game, fans could see clean sheets follow.
In central midfield, fan favourite Luke O’Nien and youngster Dan Neil are developing an exciting partnership. O’Nien’s energy and commitment, coupled with Neil’s confidence and eye for a pass and a shot, have made them the first choice ahead of new signings Corry Evans and Alex Pritchard. Neil, in particular, has impressed in his first season as a first-team regular. An excellent strike against Accrington brought his first competitive goal for the club. Three assists and a pass conversion rate of over 80% have further helped to endear the young star to the fans who is one of their own.
Further forward, Elliot Embleton in an attacking midfield role and Aiden McGeady and Lynden Gooch on the wings have caused opposition countless problems. Embleton, like others in the team, is comfortable on the ball and has an impressive pass success percentage. Embleton is also another who can contribute to the goals column.
Aiden McGeady has had a quiet season so far by his own standards; however, the experienced winger is still a threat and can create and score out of almost nothing. As the season progresses, McGeady could be the difference in a game with a moment of magic. On the opposite wing, Lynden Gooch has once again shown his pace, desire and ability to run at defenders. Although Frustrating to watch at times, he is a player that will always give 100%.
Following the departure of last seasons’ top scorer, Charlie Wyke, who scored an impressive 31 goals, many wondered if backup Ross Stewart could take over as the main goal threat. Any doubts were quickly forgotten as Stewart has performed beyond expectations. Four goals in six league games and an average rating of 7.7, according to whoscored.com, has shown that the former Raith Rovers forward, affectionately known as the “Loch Ness Drogba”, by fans is ready to lead the line for the Black Cats.
Head Coach Delighted With Improving Sunderland
Speaking after the recent victory over Accrington Stanley, Lee Johnson appeared delighted at how the season is currently going with Sunderland improving all the time. He said: “We’ve got so much growth still in us, and we need to keep dealing with these challenges. We’ve been tested this season against strong sides. I don’t think we’ve played any teams in the bottom half yet, which shows how strong the league is. I think the fans see that, as well.
“It was good entertainment, I’d have liked to see us get one or two more but I’m sure they would say the same.
“We need to keep progressing, learning, and finding a way to win. That’s what’s impressive about so far, we’ve shown quality but we’ve also battled and I think the fans have definitely played their part in that.
“The fans can see the commitment, and the youth we’ve got in the team. We can all see the mistakes but it’s young players and they’re seeing other young players recover, and that can be really powerful moving.”
Sunderland Improving but It’s Still Early Days
These are still are early days for Lee Johnson’s new-look team, but Sunderland improving with each game that passes has given Johnson and the fans cause for optimism. It’s a long season in League One, with the majority of games still to play; however, Johnson has assembled a squad that has the potential to be able to handle the rigours of the Football League. With just six league games gone, there’s a long way to go, but the signs are positive.
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