Phil Smith's verdict: Phil Parkinson left in need of an early rethink after alarming Sunderland performance

Such was the paucity of time that Phil Parkinson had to work with his players before this game, it was perhaps unrealistic to expect too much change.

Sunday, 20th October 2019, 12:45 pm
New Sunderland boss Phil Parkinson

Still, this was an poor start that leaves the new Black Cats boss with much to think about and much to improve.

The logic behind replacing Jack Ross with Parkinson was relatively simple. That this was an excellent League One squad with everything in place to, if not dominate the division, then certainly thrive in it and secure automatic promotion. What was needed above all else was a bit more organisation and a bit more third-tier know-how.

The challenge of Wycombe Wanderers away was perhaps the ultimate example of the hurdle that the Sunderland hierarchy felt Parkinson could get his side over.

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The Black Cats boss spoke about it at length in his opening press conference.

“We've got to expect that [cup final atmosphere],” he said.

“It's no good feeling sorry for ourselves, saying 'oh my god, they've raised their game'.

“We've got some players of Championship ability, and we've got to go up a level to counteract that [lift in opposition performance].

“We've got to be prepared to win in all kinds of different environments, and that is key about this division.

“In the Championship, most of the stadiums are excellent, the pitches are fantastic.

“At this level, there are certain grounds where it is a different environment and you've got to be ready for it, not getting on the coach and thinking, 'that's caught us by surprise',” he added.

“You've got to be ready and you've got to win all types of games as well.

“You've got to be able to win when you don't play well, so you've got to have the requirements in your team where you might not be at your best with the ball, but you're rock solid without it.

“That's the mentality we're looking to instill.”

The new boss also made clear that in his analysis of Ross’ Sunderland, he felt the biggest weakness was a vulnerability in transition, an openness in shape and structure that made it too easy for the opposition to pick them off.

With all this in mind, his first selection came as no great surprise.

Grant Leadbitter was installed at the base of midfield, shielding the defence. Luke O’Nien was pulled much deeper than his recent role under Ross, part of a more orthodox 4-3-3. It was Max Power who, particularly in the second half, was urged to try and make runs in support of Charlie Wyke, who picked as the focal point to battle with the centre-backs and hold the ball up for others.

Sunderland were looking to match Wycombe and it started reasonably well.

One bold call that did pay off was selecting Lee Burge ahead of Jon McLaughlin. Burge commanded his box well, made a couple of smart stops and offered good distribution that in the early stages meant Sunderland did have something of a threat.

He found Duncan Watmore with the kind of move that Ross was always keen to implement, kicking from hand to free him in the channel. The winger cut inside and found Aiden McGeady, who curled an effort just over the bar.

Wycombe, though, were for the most part comfortable with their approach, never pinned back into their own half by a long spell of possession.

A direct contest allowed them to get up the pitch and win the kind of set pieces that they thrive on.

Parkinson said he had urged his players not to give away cheap free kicks but the message was not heeded and quickly caught up with them, Adebayo Akinfenwa winning the ball from a free kick and allowing Darius Charles to thump home.

The confidence drained from the Black Cats and the feeling at the break was that they were trying to play Wycombe at a game they had better personnel, better know-how and more experience of executing.

An injury to Wyke gave an early opportunity to Will Grigg, and it was his bright start that gave the Black Cats something to build on.

He dropped into space, held the ball up well and brought others into play.

A chronic lack of creativity persisted, though.

Rarely were the midfielders or wingers able to make dangerous runs beyond the strikers, who had few dangerous crosses or through balls to attack.

Parkinson threw on his attacking options but by the time the Black Cats began to retain the ball and look to open the home side up, Gareth Ainsworth’s team were exactly where they wanted to be.

They took time out of the game at every opportunity, and used Akinfenwa as an effective way of relieving the pressure, preventing Sunderland from building any rhythm in their attacking.

It looked like they may well end the game without a shot on target, Aiden McGeady almost producing an unlikely equaliser with a stunning late effort that Ryan Allsop superbly to turned onto the crossbar.

Parkinson was calm and collected after the game. Just two days working with his players offered perspective to a laboured performance.

He felt he has got a response from his players in terms of the work-rate and application he has made clear will be a minimum requirement.

He admitted that his side had not done enough with the possession they had.

Already, his plan will need tinkering. He revealed that Wyke had suffered ankle ligament damage and though the timescale is not yet known, it was clear from his demeanour that it will be an extended lay-off.

He has already lost a player he tried to sign at Bolton Wanderers and who he was clearly intending to use as a central part of his attacking set up.

In answering questions from supporters this week, Parkinson said that he ultimately was a tactical pragmatist, and that any good side played to the strength of its forwards.

This opening game left him with much to ponder.

It was a tricky task so soon into his tenure, and one that will surely have provided him with a lot of answers.

Time to get his message across and work on his system on the training pitch will help but he also faces a hectic fixture list and will be eager to secure some positive early results.

With Sunderland now tenth in the table, time is of the essence.