After a 1-1 draw against Bristol Rovers on the opening day of the season there were calls from some on Wearside for Phil Parkinson to lose his job.
This was possibly more of a hangover from the previous season where Sunderland finished in their lowest position ever and did not really kick on after the departure of Jack Ross. But it was still only one game into the season.
Now, after the seventh round of fixtures, Sunderland sit fifth in the league with 14 points from six games, having had a match against Doncaster Rovers postponed in the international break.
The Black Cats are now the only unbeaten team left in the division, with four wins and two draws. They have also conceded just once, a penalty, three minutes into the season.
Strengthening the backline, and the depth in defence, was a key focus for Phil Parkinson over the summer, who brought in Bailey Wright, Arbenit Xhemajli, Morgan Feeney, Dion Sanderson and now Callum McFadzean to bolster the ranks which already included Jordan Willis, Denver Hume and Conor McLaughlin.
Ex-Argyle goalkeeper Remi Matthews was also brought in to give competition to Lee Burge after the departure of goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin, who many people thought was irreplaceable, yet Burge now has five clean sheets from six games.
While Burge’s record so far has been impressive, he has been helped significantly by Sunderland’s defence. The Black Cats have faced just 40 shots in their six games so far, and just 11 of those were on target. These are by far the lowest figures for these stats in the league and while Sunderland have played a game fewer than most clubs, the nearest figures are not close.
Whether this is down to having a better defence, or whether it is to do with a change in system, or a better understanding of Phil Parkinson’s system and methods is not clear from a distance, but what is clear is that Sunderland this season are tough to score against, let alone beat.
Many previous promotions have been built on the back of having a strong defence, but if you can’t score at the other end it will not get you very far. With players like Will Grigg, Charlie Wyke and Danny Graham, all of whom were regular goal scorers before joining Sunderland, and players like Aidan O’Brien, Chris Maguire and Lynden Gooch who can all also chip in with goals when not providing them, Sunderland have a plethora of attacking talent available.
But for the attacking players at their disposal their goalscoring record is low, Sunderland have scored just seven goals in six games.
Couple that with the defensive record and you might think it answers the question, highlighting a more defensive style, yet if you dig deeper into the stats only three sides have had more shots than Sunderland despite Parkinson’s side having played a game less.
When you break that down to shots on target Sunderland fall to 10th, suggesting that shot accuracy is an issue with only 30 of their 92 shots this season on target.
While that looks a dramatic drop, Sunderland have averaged five shots on target a game, and have played a game fewer than many of their opponents. If they had played that game and had five shots on target they would be up to third, with only Lincoln and Peterborough having more shots.
Possession has not been a particular strength for Sunderland this season, who are currently ninth in the league when it comes to average possession, but in a 3-4-3, how Sunderland started the season, you will often be outnumbered in the centre of midfield and would not necessarily expect to dominate possession.
Having already highlighted Sunderland’s strength in defence, in goal and up front, it would be wrong to overlook the midfield. The return of Grant Leadbitter to the side on a regular basis this season has added something that was missing in his absence.
Alongside him, sit Josh Scowen, Max Power, George Dobson and Luke O’Nien, if he’s not being utilised elsewhere, mean Sunderland have one of the best, if not the best, midfield’s in League One, and looking overall at the squad there is not one that you could look at and say is comfortably better than Sunderland’s, and with only a couple that look a similar standard.
Having a good squad on paper does not, on its own, deliver results. Sunderland have found this out for themselves over the last couple of seasons. Parkinson knows what it takes to get promoted from this division, he’s done it before and this Sunderland side looks well placed to go for it again. Whether their form can be maintained over the course of the season is another matter though.
Looking at Sunderland’s fixtures before the season started Oxford United, Peterborough United and Charlton Athletic being three of the first four opponents made it look an incredibly tough start, though these sides have had different starts with Oxford struggling, Charlton midtable and Peterborough currently in a play-off spot. Parkinson’s side have since faced Swindon Town and Crewe Alexandra, both promoted from League Two last season, both are currently in the bottom half but facing a newly promoted side is rarely an easy task.
The one opponent they faced not mentioned so far in the opening paragraphs was Bristol Rovers, which did not look too difficult on paper with them having lost their best player, had a massive squad overhaul and being led by a manager with a poor record, yet Sunderland only managed a draw against Rovers who have defied expectations so far and look a side transformed.
There are more tough-looking fixtures to come for Sunderland, with eighth placed Portsmouth, Steve Evans’ Gillingham and title challengers Ipswich Town three of the next four games, alongside Rochdale. Sunderland’s defence should be given their strongest challenge yet against Portsmouth, who have had more shots than any other team so far this campaign, and the third most on target.
Pompey didn’t have the best of starts to the season, as covered a few weeks back, but have picked up since with three wins from four games, making Sunderland’s task even harder as they’ll be facing an in-form side. Nothing will be decided from Saturday’s game, or even those next four games. But Sunderland do have the opportunity to show that they are title contenders this season, rather than play-off contenders.
If Parkinson’s side can maintain, or improve on, their form so far over the next four games then Sunderland will have made a real statement about what they are capable of this season, albeit in a small chunk of the season with a long time left to play.