Key priorities facing new Sunderland manager ahead of vital Millwall game
Simon Grayson was sacked 11 days ago, yet Sunderland are still yet to appoint his successor and while they have a free weekend, the visit of Millwall to the Stadium of Light is rapidly approaching.
Joint caretakers Robbie Stockdale and Billy McKinlay are overseeing training at the Academy of Light with those players not away on international duty, while Martin Bain leads the search.
The situation facing the new man is bleak, Sunderland bottom of the Championship and three points from safety, with a third of the campaign gone.
Sunderland are entrenched in another relegation battle. There won’t be a honeymoon period for Grayson’s replacement, time is of the essence as we examine the key issues.
Assess the squad:
With progress on the manager hunt painfully slow, if Sunderland do appoint before the visit of Millwall the chances are the new man will only have a couple of days with the players. If that.
Watching from afar and doing as much preparation as possible is fine but until they are warming the manager’s chair they can’t properly assess the options.
The international fixtures complicates matters with several players away, and the new boss will inevitably lean heavily on Stockdale and McKinlay in the early days.
Make a decision over the goalkeeper:
Simon Grayson couldn’t make his mind up over Jason Steele or Robbin Ruiter. It helped contribute to his downfall.
Sunderland never had a settled backline and paid the price, shipping goals for fun, 31 in 16 games.
Ruiter started Grayson’s final game and was partly at fault for the opening goal but he looked far more assured against Middlesbrough.
The 30-year-old made a fine save to deny Martin Braithwaite and looked comfortable at set pieces.
Ruiter has the gloves and should start against Millwall. The new boss has to make a decision and stick with it.
Sort out a leaky defence:
Sunderland have the joint-worst defence and on average are shipping two goals a game meaning they have to score at least three to stand a chance of winning.
No wonder they have only managed one league victory, the 3-1 win over Norwich City in the sunshine at Carrow Road back on August 13.
Injuries didn’t help Grayson, with Lamine Kone – now out for 10 weeks – Marc Wilson and Tyias Browning all injured for spells, with Bryan Oviedo missing the first five games.
It meant constant tweaks and tinkering, while Grayson also never really settled on a right-back.
Adam Matthews has looked more consistent and offers more going forward than Billy Jones, who endured a nightmare Tees-Wear derby before going off injured.
All those factors, coupled with rank bad defending and little protection in front has led to Sunderland’s dismal defensive record.
Settle on a backline and coach the living daylights out of them. That will be the challenge facing the new manager.
Ellis Short made it crystal clear one of the key factors in Grayson’s sacking was the defensive record.
The new manager simply can’t afford to make the same mistakes.
Solve Sunderland’s midfield crisis:
Stockdale and McKinlay shoehorned four central midfielders into the side beaten by Boro in a bid to shore up defensively.
Despite the sixth-minute winner, Sunderland looked more compact and organised but Lee Cattermole, Darron Gibson and Paddy McNair (just back from injury) visibly tired second half.
Sunderland were pedestrian and predictable in their play and lacked any attacking threat.
Gibson has done little to convince he is worth pursuing with. Didier Ndong is better centrally. A trio of Ndong, Jonny Williams and McNair the best bet – provided all three can stay fit.
Avoid new English record at all costs:
Not only was the draw with Bolton Grayson’s final game in charge, it also saw Sunderland equal the English record for a home winless streak – 19 games.
Sunderland hold the record jointly with Derby County, Nottingham Forest and Dagenham & Redbridge but could have it outright if they don’t beat Millwall.
It would be the worst possible start for the new manager and further heighten relegation fears. Millwall are 19th but already seven points clear of Sunderland.
Rebuild shattered confidence and rally the fans:
Finally, and this is just as important as improving the defence and solving the midfield woes.
Sunderland’s confidence levels are so fragile, witnessed every time they concede first. Improving the squad’s mental toughness is crucial.
Rallying the fans is equally as important. This is a proud football club with a proud support but the Stadium of Light has become a happy hunting ground for opposition teams in 2017.
The new manager has to have the charisma and personality to help lift the club from the doldrums on and off the pitch otherwise League One football will become an ever increasing possibility.