Phil Smith's Sunderland Q&A: Chris Maguire's absence, Wigan disappointment and top-two hopes under the microscope

Sunderland’s automatic promotion hopes took a major hit on Tuesday night with a 2-1 defeat at Wigan Athletic.

Wednesday, 14th April 2021, 4:45 pm

In his weekly Q&A, Phil Smith has been discussing all the fall out from that result, and what happens next.

You can read his responses below….

Does Lee Johnson need to find a settled side and stick to it?

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Chris Maguire has been missing from the last two Sunderland matchday squads

I think rotation is an inevitable consequence of the fixture schedule this season.

There needs to be some recognition of the fact that Johnson has had to deal with so many injuries, which again is to be expected when you play so many games in a short space of time.

The last two games have been frustrating, and Tuesday night in particular was well short of what is required, but it doesn’t change how impressive it was to go on that unbeaten run with a makeshift defence.

At times, there was only one natural defender in the back four/five.

There probably has been a little more rotation than ideal in the last couple but the return of Jordan Jones, Aiden O’Brien & Denver Hume from muscle injuries has had to be managed.

A last-minute change to the XI on Tuesday night, while no excuse for the second-half performance, also didn’t help.

I do think Johnson is still searching for the right balance, between controlling games and having a regular attacking threat.

He himself said even throughout that unbeaten run that he felt that there was more to come from the group in terms of performance levels.

What’s happening with Chris Maguire? Why is he playing for the U23s?

Maguire’s game time has been limited of late so his presence in the reserves for their last two games is just to keep his match fitness for if/when he is needed for the first team.

I don’t think there’s any major reason or specific issue behind his exclusion; just a reflection of the numbers Lee Johnson has in his squad.

After all, it was less than two weeks ago that he was brought on at a really important point of the game against Oxford United, and trusted to help get his team over the line.

He travelled with the squad for the game against Peterborough United a couple of days later, so I don’t think there’s a significant issue.

Don’t forget that he was handed a start in the Papa John’s Trophy final, either.

Undoubtedly, Johnson has preferred other attacking options and his recent absence is largely due to the return of injured players.

Specifically, the return of Denver Hume has meant that Johnson has gone with an additional defender on the bench and Maguire has been the player to miss out.

That makes sense when you consider that Hume has been missing for around four months. Johnson has also had concerns over Dion Sanderson’s back of late, which is another reason why he’s been keen to have some defensive cover.

Johnson has regularly said of late that picking his bench has been harder than picking the team, such is the number of options that he has.

Maguire has been the player to lose out from that, and Carl Winchester was going to be the same last night until Conor McLaughlin’s late withdrawal.

Maguire was finding himself in a similar situation towards the start of the year, and Johnson was asked regularly why that was the case.

His response was always that it was simply because of the numbers he had available, and it was no secret that after signing Ross Stewart he wanted to trim the squad.

In the end, it was Elliot Embleton who left on loan to join Blackpool.

Injuries gave Maguire his chance and it is a bit of a surprise that he has dropped back out of contention as he did a good job in that impact substitute role.

Having said that, the question is who do you leave off the bench?

Johnson likes to play with two strikers where possible, and Aiden O’Brien in particular was an absolutely key part of that unbeaten run.

Jack Diamond has been a really good option and Johnson has spoken a lot about how valuable he finds Lynden Gooch’s versatility.

Maguire will feature again before the end of the season, I strongly suspect, and I’m sure it will be one of the questions Johnson is weighing up over the next few days.

Undoubtedly, there was a lack of composure last night and Maguire can bring you that.

More broadly, Johnson is a head coach who likes to work with small squads and he always says that managing players not involved is the toughest part of the job.

He has recognised that this season is exceptional due to the hectic fixture schedule, but it’s this exact situation that he liked to avoid.

He has a 20-man squad at the moment (and it’ll be even more when Flanagan and Vokins return), and only 18 spots.

Don’t expect a repeat next season.

Is it all over in terms of automatic promotion now?

I think Sunderland are definitely the big outsiders in terms of the top three now.

They need five wins minimum, and I think they almost definitely need to beat Hull City next Tuesday.

Johnson was asked about this last night and was fairly sanguine. Sunderland clearly need a lot of favours from elsewhere but he insisted that they can beat anyone on their day.

Hull’s run-in is fairly tough, so it’s not all over just yet.

But clearly, last night’s poor performance has swung the pendulum massively. Either way, a big improvement is needed from the Black Cats.

Theory going round that the report of the £60 million summer budget will mean some of these players know they won’t be here next season. Do you think the players have been affected?

First and foremost, the new regime have been abundantly clear that they aren’t going to throw money at the transfer market.

Sustainability is the absolute core of their vision and that means investing, but doing so where the club can get real value down the line.

Speaking earlier this year, for example, Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman told a football conference: “I don’t want to disappoint all of our agent friends that are on the call today but whilst we’ve got an owner who is obviously financially viable, we won’t be going down a win-at-all-costs, spend-at-all-costs strategy, it just won’t be that.”

There’s no doubt that Kyril Louis-Dreyfus is prepared to invest and if Sunderland win promotion, that he will look to make the squad immediately competitive.

But the club are still managing their recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, and there will be FFP to consider too.

Either way, it shouldn’t have any impact on the current squad.

Regardless of whether Sunderland are promoted or not, it’s clear that Johnson and Speakman will make changes as they look to further embed a new playing philosophy.

It’s up to every player right now to prove that they’re worth a place in that squad moving forward.

Is it right to question Lee Johnson’s tactical decisions recently? Throwing four subs on doesn’t seem to work?

I think there has to be a balance here because by and large, Johnson’s willingness to act quickly in games has been a major asset in 2021.

Even as recently as last Monday, the substitutions he made helped the team finish strongly even if the winning goal didn’t quite materialise.

On Good Friday in particular, the substitutions made after Oxford went down to ten men were excellent and helped make the most of Sunderland’s numerical advantage.

There are a lot of examples where quite significant early substitutions have worked to Sunderland’s advantage.

For sure, it didn’t work last night.

I thought Sunderland went too direct too quickly, and there just seemed to be a total lack of composure through the whole side.

That needs addressing quickly because the end product late on against Charlton was poor, too.

There are going to be a lot of spells in games where the tension is high between now and the end of the season and if Sunderland are going to get promoted, they will need to manage that pressure a lot better.

That second half at Wigan was a brutal watch and it will have left Johnson with a lot to consider, but generally I much prefer his proactive approach to making substitutions.

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