The big early calls Phil Parkinson is facing and what to expect from the new Sunderland boss
Phil Parkinson faces some big early calls as he begins his Sunderland tenure on Saturday afternoon.
Three games in seven days gives him a big opportunity to get his tenure off to a flying start, though it also significantly limits his time on the training pitch.
As such, he will be relying on what he has seen in studying the Black Cats’ previous games this season, a couple of sessions with the group and the advice of the staff who have stayed on after the departure of Jack Ross.
He has already given some revealing insight into his plans.
So what can we expect from Parkinson on Saturday and in the coming weeks?
We take a look at the trends of the season so far, what seems likely to change, and what doesn’t….
Get McLaughlin back to his best
Jon McLaughlin erred at Lincoln City, misjudging the cross that put the hosts ahead and set Sunderland on the path to defeat.
There have been some calls from supporters for Lee Burge, impressive in the cup matches so far this season, to get a chance in the league.
McLaughlin was a pivotal figure for Jack Ross and should be able to recapture his form from last season, it will be a major boost to Parkinson in attempting to improve the team’s defensive record.
The pair worked together productively at Bradford City, with McLaughlin on Friday hailing the new manager’s ‘proven formula’.
After earning another Scotland cap during the international break, it seems certain that McLaughlin will be given the chance to land his first league clean sheet.
Recapturing McLaughlin’s best form will be a key early priority for Parkinson, though the ongoing uncertainty over his contractual situation could also do with being resolved sooner rather than later.
Build on better signs at the back
Parkinson identified clean sheets as a key priority upon taking charge, just as Jack Ross had done in the early stages of the season.
It was a bitter frustration for the former Black Cats boss, who felt he had improved not just the personnel at his disposal but also the level of performances in defending the box.
Alim Ozturk and Jordan Willis looked solid, and even stronger when Joel Lynch got up to match fitness and replaced Ozturk in the heart of defence.
Eradicating individual errors will be key for the new boss, but he will undoubtedly benefit from the additions Ross made in the summer.
Lynch will only get better and the same goes for Conor McLaughlin, who began gradually settling into the right back role towards the end of Ross’ tenure.
That gives the new manager a platform, though he has a big early decision to make on the other flank.
Laurens De Bock started well but struggled at Lincoln City, and while Denver Hume has been inconsistent, he impressed with his delivery in the EFL Trophy win over Grimsby Town.
In the search for an improved defensive output, De Bock’s experience might make him the safe option.
Get a better balance in midfield
Those encouraging defensive signs came unstuck at Sincil Bank, mainly due to a lack of balance in the side, Sunderland picked apart on the counter as Lincoln’s lively and sharp front four drove into space.
It’s clear that this vulnerability in the transition is something that Parkinson has quickly identified as something he wants to address.
In all of his comments about style of play and improving this team so far, he has emphasised the need to ensure everyone is aware of their responsibilities off the ball.
He said Sunderland have been, in the games he has watched, ‘too loose and too open’.
So it’s safe to assume that there will be a fairly significant change in the organisation of the side.
Though Ross faced criticism for his style of play at times, it was rarely due to a lack of intent.
Ross tried to play with two strikers and two very direct and instinctively attacking wingers in Aiden McGeady and Lynden Gooch.
Parkinson has often played with a 4-4-2 in his managerial career and it may well be that he chooses to do so again.
His early comments have made clear, however, that it will be a very different structure.
He will not want to leave Dylan McGeouch or Grant Leadbitter isolated on the break, and it will be fascinating to see how he achieves that balance.
Improving the output of his strikers
It’s here that the success or otherwise of Sunderland’s season will likely be settled.
He has spoken of tightening up his side but it is imperative that it does not lead to a reduced output at the other end of the pitch.
In that sense, the biggest impression he will be looking to make is improving the poor goal tally from his main two strikers.
Charlie Wyke and Will Grigg have just one league goal between them, and getting them more involved in the box will be crucial to ensuring Sunderland are a side than can threaten while implementing Parkinson’s tighter defensive shape.
In answering questions from fans, he gave an insight into how he thinks he can improve Wyke’s output, stressing that the striker scores a high percentage of his goals from crosses and that his team must feed that.
Speaking more generally, he also referenced a desire to get the ball into the box earlier in the team’s attacking build-up play.
It’s the biggest area of the pitch where the Black Cats can improve from the early stages of the campaign, and one where fans will arguably most want to see an improvement.
It’s a big early call in terms of selection.
Marc McNulty has been the form player this season, but Wyke offers the target man potential Parkinson usual plays with and Grigg’s record at previous clubs in League One speaks for itself.