By Luke Power
Football managers appointed to save clubs mired in crisis are often dubbed ‘firefighters’: plug-in-and-go folk heroes drafted in to save a crumbling defence from collapse, douse the flames of fan discontent, and impose some order on entropy. If results are acceptable, the firefighter emerges sooty-faced, and everybody breathes a sigh of relief.
But there comes a point when the firefighter has to abandon the hose, a point at which merely staving off meltdown is not considered heroic enough. It is perhaps at this juncture that Phil Parkinson has arrived, with Sunderland still in League One a year after his arrival, and not finding the sailing as plain as they might like.
Not to paint a picture of despair. Sunderland are having a solid season and Parkinson deserves a lot of credit for that. The Black Cats currently sit sixth in League One and have the division’s joint-second-best defensive record, with defeats to Portsmouth and MK Dons being their only losses of the league campaign.
But Jack Ross was sacked when Sunderland were in the same position, and he had the credit of having led Sunderland to the playoff final the season before. To top that off, Ross had the third-best win percentage of any manager in the club’s history.
Parkinson has no such redeeming graces. And even if Sunderland are in reasonably good form, he may be fortunate that the stands are empty. Like any expectant crowd, the Sunderland faithful can be capricious and, like a Roman Emperor, dictate the fate of the entertainers in their Colosseum. Currently, fan opinion is divided.
It would help if Sunderland were a bit more creative. Their key problem is that they are not scoring enough goals for a side targeting automatic promotion, and so far this season they’ve relied on penalties and own goals- fountains which will inevitably dry up- more than any other team in the league. Parkinson’s base formation of choice, the 3-5-2, is not renowned for its attacking flair, and places immense pressure on the wingbacks to provide an outlet.
Indeed, Sunderland’s attacking motions are often focused on getting the ball wide for the likes of Lynden Gooch to whip into the box. The physicality of forward Charlie Wyke and the rest of the side has proved useful, especially against less brawny opposition. In their Papa John’s Trophy match against Aston Villa’s Under 21s, six of Sunderland’s eight goals resulted from crosses. For sure, that game showcased all of Sunderland’s attacking potency, but their method of scoring was symptomatic of the team’s constant reversion to direct tactics.
Not enough is being eked out of a quality squad. Will Grigg is minor royalty in the Football League and the most expensive player in League One history, and yet his output at Sunderland has been underwhelming: eight goals in 55 games.
This downfall is directly traceable to Sunderland’s style; Grigg is no titan in the air. He developed a reputation at Wigan for putting teams to bed in a flash because they played to his strengths, prioritising incisive through balls and zipping passes to his feet. At Sunderland, he is forced between struggling for the ball in the air or coming deep to collect it, neither of which suit him.
On the bright side, this Sunderland side brims with potential, and Parkinson has them exceptionally well-drilled. Sunderland are relentless, able to outlast teams and strike late on, their record in the second half of games being an impressive 8-1 this season. On their second-half form, they would be second in the league.
This is also a team steeped in the fortitude of leaders, with skipper Max Power supported by Bailey Wright and Grant Leadbitter, previously captains of Bristol City and Middlesbrough respectively. Such organisation shows in their performances. Yet for this Sunderland contingent, time is of the essence. With one of the oldest and most threadbare squads in the league, there may not be many cracks of the whip left until the club needs to reincarnate.
League One is a land of sleeping giants, but they are starting to stir. After their collapse at the end of last season, Ipswich have started strongly. Hull, fresh out of the lift from Championship demotion, have hit the ground running despite their summer exodus. Charlton, Portsmouth, and Peterborough will all be backing themselves for promotion, while Wigan, with their decimated squad, may take time to rebuild but could be a force in years to come. And like every year, there are lesser-heralded clubs riding the crest of form’s wave. Lincoln and Fleetwood spring to mind.
But football rarely thinks about the mitigating circumstances. In stature, Sunderland are this tier’s most prodigious club, and fans are expecting to lead the pack. For some, their stay in League One has already become uncomfortably long. Phil Parkinson has the credentials, the qualities, and the squad. Sunderland need to strike while the iron is hot, before lower-league football swallows them whole.
Image: Ben Sutherland via Creative Commons