Making sense of Sunderland's disappointing defeat, Lee Johnson's telling comments and what it all means

There are nights when Sunderland's diminished status really bites and this was one of them.

Thursday, 2nd December 2021, 12:30 pm

A team drifting to defeat amid the freezing cold, struggling for ideas against a purposeful side currently sitting 23rd in the League Two table.

Which is not to be overly critical of those involved, necessarily.

This not-so-loved competition is one in which Sunderland have enjoyed a fair amount of success in recent years, relegating it even further down the list of priorities for the current campaign.

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Oldham celebrate their winning goal

It was always going to be used as a development competition, and that was only underlined when the senior team made unexpectedly excellent progress in the Carabao Cup, adding further challenges to an already brutal schedule.

Even if the nature of the defeat stung, the Papa John's Trophy exit itself will not be greatly mourned. That is so long as Sunderland go on to secure their primary objective of automatic promotion, which they remain relatively well placed to do.

It will have been universally acknowledged, too, that Lee Johnson was in no position to expose his senior players and risk further injury.

His options are threadbare enough as it is, and another injury or two would have been potentially ruinous.

Three League One games on home turf over the next week provide an important opportunity to really relaunch the top-two push, and Johnson needs every player at his disposal to be as fresh as possible.

It meant that his side got weaker as Oldham's got stronger through the game itself.

Both had rotated their side heavily to begin with, but after Elliot Embleton and Leon Dajaku were withdrawn at the break the home side had just three senior players on the pitch, one of which was the goalkeeper.

By contrast Oldham were beginning to introduce more experienced players and it helped see the game out with relatively little alarm.

It was without doubt a chastening night for Johnson's young side, who in truth had been second best for much of the first half, too.

And one that, unquestionably, is of consequence to this crucial month of fixtures ahead.

Before the game, the head coach had urged any youngster involved to show that they could help to step up amid the current injury crisis, and also dangled the carrot of a place in the squad when he takes nine substitutes to Arsenal later this month.

By the end, he had candidly admitted that many had been found wanting.

"The reality is that we weren’t good enough against a side that’s second bottom in the Football League," he pointedly said.

The clear inference was that his pool of potential players for Saturday and beyond has not grown.

There is some mitigation to be considered, here.

Ollie Younger impressed again and drew praise from Johnson, and while it was not his best night, two league appearances at important times have shown the head coach has a trust in Will Harris.

Also notable was that through injury neither Ellis Taylor or Harrison Sohna were available.

Both are two of the younger and most accomplished players in the U23 group, with the former of particular interest to Johnson. Though he had a slight dip in his level earlier this season, the head coach now thinks he is just about back to his best as he develops through training with the senior group on a regular basis.

That U23 group has also mirrored Johnson's senior side in playing style and philosophy, so the switch to a new formation is also a shift from normality for these players and the disjointed performance more than likely owed at least a little something to that.

There has been some strong work done, both in recruitment and in coaching, to get the club's U18 and U23 groups back up to a competitive level, but the harsh reality is that the damage done during the period of the previous ownership is now being realised, when those talented players who departed for Premier League clubs would now be right on the cusp of the senior squad.

Rebuilding those sides is a long-term project, Johnson underlining here that there is much work still to be done.

The upshot is that Johnson will revert almost entirely to the XI who beat Cambridge United last Saturday, and will hope for no further setbacks in the run up to the January window.

He has suggested this week that he is unlikely to enter the free-agent market, unconvinced he will find the quality he needs to make an impact on the squad.

It means he needs those who could return this month (Dennis Cirkin, Corry Evans likely, Denver Hume a possible if all progresses very well) to do so without setback, and he needs those who did well out of position at the Abbey Stadium to continue in that vein.

Leon Dajaku struggled in the opening 45 here, looking uncomfortable in both the attacking and defensive aspects of the wing-back role. Johnson will hope that his solid showing in the swirling wind and sleet and Storm Arwen was a better representation of his ultimate level.

Produce solid performances and results over the next week and this grim night will quickly fade into distant memory.

It nevertheless acts as a strong warning of how delicately Johnson's squad is placed, both in terms of availability and performance levels.

January is shaping up to be a critical month, with the need for notable strengthening now abundantly clear.

Johnson's challenge is to get his side there still firmly in contention.

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