In-form Johnson can be key man for Sunderland – Paolo

Sunderland's Adam Johnson.
Sunderland's Adam Johnson.
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PAOLO DI Canio says Adam Johnson can prove more of a tormentor to Premier League defenders than fellow England winger Aaron Lennon.

Despite contributing five goals and six assists, Johnson endured a mixed first season at Sunderland after struggling to live up to the expectations which followed his £10million move to the Stadium of Light last summer.

But the 25-year-old showed a marked improvement after Di Canio took charge of the Black Cats, and the head coach believes there is even more to come from the Easington-born wideman.

Di Canio compares Johnson to Tottenham’s Lennon, who returned to his best form under Andre Villas-Boas this season and has already been linked with a move to Inter Milan this summer.

“You look at someone like Lennon, who is a fantastic footballer,” Di Canio told the Echo. “But he doesn’t have the same trickery that Adam has got.

“Adam can play left or right, while Lennon is not a player who can come in side and play one-two combinations.

“Adam is a player who can demolish his opponents easily. He’s a crucial player.”

Despite his struggles last season, Johnson still played a vital role in Sunderland’s successful survival battle under Di Canio.

Johnson grabbed a stunning second goal in Sunderland’s derby victory at St James’s Park and was at the heart of the 10-man fightback against Stoke City, as the Black Cats claimed what proved to be a precious point.

Di Canio noticeably singled out Johnson from the touchline during his first few games in charge.

He constantly issued instructions to the former Manchester City man.

But the Sunderland boss insists his relationship with Johnson was akin to that of a big brother, rather than adopting an authoritarian stance.

“The change came from him and if he got the benefits, then that’s good,” added Di Canio.

“I can help, but if he doesn’t help himself, then he can’t do anything.

“It’s obvious that change can sometimes help an individual, with a new system or fitness regime or a different relationship with the manager.

“I can’t judge why and I don’t want to praise myself. But it was easy for me straightaway to have a good relationship.

“It wasn’t as a friend, more as an older brother, smacking his bottom or saying fantastic, keep going.

“He scored the winner at Newcastle, but he can still do much better, in terms of defending off-the-ball.

“But he received the message very clearly so I’m very happy.”