Questions were mounting up for Lee Johnson prior to Saturday’s win over Ipswich Town. Strangely, even after a 2-0 win at home, those questions do not seem any closer to being answered.
Of course, we can simultaneously bask in the glow of victory while also being concerned about the level of performances recently.
I mean, we can, right?
Team displays have spiralled since the Cheltenham match. Surely there is nothing controversial in saying that. But, three points are certainly welcome and also worthy of praise. It should not be an either/or scenario.
Perhaps some balance is required here. Pleasure, joy and happiness as well as constructive criticism can all coexist together.
It is not negative to highlight the obvious on-pitch deficiencies against the Tractor Boys. It would simply be accurately reflecting what we all witnessed: the way we couldn’t pass a ball five yards without giving it away, the aimless hoof ball (at times reminiscent of Parkinson era), and the way the team looked vulnerable down the right. All things to be genuinely concerned about, and which need addressing in order for Sunderland to look like true promotion contenders again.
Thankfully, for every ‘yin’ there was a ‘yang’. There were certainly a few positives to build on, other than the score line, at least.
The Lads showed some much needed aggression at the weekend and it carried them through. Without that dogged display you could argue the foundation to go on and win the match would not have been there. Thorben Hoffman’s crucial saves helped in that regard too.
This showed that there is certainly a determination to put things right from within. Johnson’s men have not thrown in the metaphorical towel just yet. Perhaps, importantly, this also suggests the dressing room is still on his side and it will be interesting to keep a watching brief on this as the fixtures progress.
Luke O’Nien is also worthy of a mention. Rightly criticised for his performances of late in midfield, he slotted back into defence with ease. It can’t be a coincidence that this was comfortably his best game in some time. It is surely food for thought for Johnson and O’Nien himself.
At 27 years of age, the former Wycombe Wanderers man should now be looking to be honest with himself, for his own benefit and that of the club. The elephant in the room is we all know full-back is his best position. Everyone can see it, not just Jack Ross.
Perhaps O’Nien still considers himself a midfielder by trade. There can be some sympathy here for a player who was signed by the club to play in that role. Through no fault of his own (injuries were not kind to us last season either) he did not get a chance to really shine in that position.
Yet Johnson has now given O’Nien that chance, arguably at the expense of the team at times this season. All parties need to accept what should, at this stage in proceedings, be the inevitable conclusion – Luke O’Nien is a full-back.
In any event, given injuries to Denver Hume, Niall Huggins and now Dennis Cirkin, it is hard not to imagine O’Nien will be filling in at left back for the foreseeable future – whether he likes it or not.
So then, onto Shrewsbury on Tuesday night and the bad streak will only truly be over when the positive one has kicked fully into gear. Sunderland should be looking upwards with the sort of confidence and swagger that comes from a win and a clean sheet against a team with some historic clout.
Of course this is Sunderland and anything is possible.
Johnson talked before the game about having to ‘heal emotionally’ during the international break. The Ipswich game may not have healed many wounds but there was certainly some balm applied to the sore.