‘Our start to the season has felt like a breath of fresh air given the state of the club in recent years’

Michael Lough takes a look at a start to the season that few would have predicted

On the eve of our opening game against Coventry, if someone told you that Alex Neil would leave the club before the season was a month old; be replaced by Tony Mowbray and we would end our tenth league fixture without a recognised striker on the field, few would have predicted that we would be fifth in the league after holding Watford to a 2-2 draw.

This expectation-defying start to the season has felt like a breath of fresh air given the state of the club in recent years.

Back in 2017, after ten games we also faced an upcoming tie with Preston North End, fortunately this is where the similarities between them and the current crop of players end.

At the same stage of that season had won just once, had a grand total of six points, had lost six out of our previous seven games and manager, Simon Grayson had just told us that we had our previous opponents Ipswich Town ‘on the ropes’ at 4-2, in a game we would go on to lose 5-2.

The likes of Lamine Kone, Didier Ndong, Darron Gibson and Billy Jones hung around like a bad smell and a series of new recruits struggled to make an impact on Wearside.

I’m sure fans don’t need reminding how the rest of the 2017-18 season played out and I haven’t brought it up to bring everyone’s mood down, but more to emphasise the contrast between the current situation on the pitch compared to this time five years ago.

You could argue that it is much easier to get off to a good start to the season when you are coming off the back of a play-off final victory, without a defeat in 16 games, but our start to the season has not been without its challenges.

In just our second game back in the Championship, we trailed 2-1 to Bristol City early in the second half, but instead of crumbling we got straight back on the front foot, showed bravery in possession and equalised within two minutes. We went on to win the game 3-2 and we remain the only side to have taken anything from a trip to Ashton Gate.

Despite a defeat at Sheffield United, we responded admirably to being reduced to ten men and going 2-0 down to the early pace setters and after a battling second half performance the lads were applauded off by a packed out away end.

Then, the biggest curveball of all was thrown into the equation when Alex Neil joined Stoke in the build up to the Norwich game. We again took the play to the recently relegated hosts and were unlucky not to emerge with at least a point.

Since Tony Mowbray has arrived at the club, and with the exception of our performance away at Middlesbrough, we have continued to react to adversity in remarkable fashion.

Our best performance of the season came without a striker on the pitch as Embleton, Roberts and Clarke tormented the Reading defence and capped off the win with one of the best goals we’ve scored in recent times.

The way we adapted at Watford was arguably even more impressive, at 2-1 down to another recently-relegated side, Mowbray threw caution to the wind and introduced Jay Matete, Jewison Bennette, Abdoullah Ba, Amad Diallo and Leon Dajaku.

The results were pretty much instant as Sunderland got a foothold in the game and our pressure eventually paid dividends with when Bennette’s composed finish sent the travelling fans wild.

Another example of players stepping up to the plate has been Aji Alese seamlessly slotting into the left back role in place of Dennis Cirkin.

In short both the problem-solving capabilities of Tony Mowbray and the lads on the pitch have set us up to have a very successful season.

It is worth pointing out that despite our lofty position of fifth, just five points separate ourselves and 22nd-placed Boro and the league table could look a lot different in a few weeks’ time.

Of course, concerns remain over strength in depth in certain positions, as exceptional as Lynden Gooch and O’Nien have been in their respective defensive roles so far, it could be argued that it is unsustainable to rely on them both long term.

In terms of O’Nien this is of course easily remedied when Dan Ballard comes back into the side but in terms of right backs, things are slightly more worrying in that backup option, Trai Hume has yet to be properly exposed to Championship football and found opportunities limited in League One last season.

That being said, there are far more reasons to be optimistic, in Mowbray we have a manager who is prepared to take a chance on young players and has shown both tactical bravery and flexibility during his tenure so far.

Blackburn fans warned us of his tendency to be quite conservative in his approach to away games, but five goals and our general approach to our last two away games has gone a long way to alleviating those fears.

At Reading he took a big gamble by opting to play with a false 9 rather than try Dajaku or Amad up front and equally at Watford he opted to play something that more resembled a 4-4-2 in the hope of making the ball stick more and used the bench well to secure the point.

The character of the group is also clearly sky high and you could never accuse the players of a lack of commitment.

At the start of the season, many Sunderland fans, myself included, would have taken a boring season of mid-table mediocrity, and while I would still welcome a similar league position my overall expectations have shifted somewhat.

While I still don’t feel we have enough for a sustained play-off push and may ultimately finish mid table or slightly lower, it will be anything but boring.

Right now, I am just enjoying the freedom we are playing with, and the never ending slog of League One football feels a million miles away.

The brand of football we have is exciting, high energy and our squad is littered with attacking talent.

Due to the youthfulness of the squad, at times this season we will probably go on runs of form where the play-offs look reachable, but equally we will probably go on poor runs of form and you know what? That’s absolutely fine.