Phil Smith's Sunderland Q&A: Kyril Louis-Dreyfus plans, injury latest & the big Luke O'Nien debate on the agenda

It has been a hectic month for Sunderland and their first midweek without a fixture for some time has given everyone a welcome chance to take a breath.

Wednesday, 24th March 2021, 12:37 pm

With that in mind, Phil Smith has been taking questions from supporters on all things Sunderland AFC and the Kyril Louis-Dreyfus era so far.

You can read all his responses below…

When can we expect Jordan Jones to be back?

Majority shareholder Kyril Louis-Dreyfus

The club has been understandably cautious in putting a timeframe on this but I think we can probably make some reasonable judgements from what we know so far.

Interestingly, Northern Ireland confirmed last week that Jones would have been called into the squad for the current round of fixtures, were it not for his injury.

The good news is that he was starting to do some work towards the end of last week, though at that stage he was not yet back training on the grass.

So I think it’s fair to deduct that he’s unlikely to be involved this weekend, but hopefully he’ll be nearing contention by the time those crucial Easter fixtures come around.

We’ll get an update from Lee Johnson ahead of the Bristol Rovers game on how he is faring.

It’ll be a big boost for Sunderland when he returns.

He brings such a threat and it was a big step forward when Johnson found a way to get both him and Aiden McGeady in the same starting XI.

Fingers crossed we see that again soon.

Can we expect anyone else back for the Bristol Rovers game?

From what we’ve heard from Jamie McAllister and Lee Johnson over the last week, the player likely to return first is Aiden O’Brien.

He was doing some light training towards the end of last week and so hopefully will be moving close to a return.

I think his ability to link the play and occupy defenders has been missed, though the arrival of Ross Stewart clearly helps in that regard, too.

After that, Sunderland’s management team have put Bailey Wright in a similar bracket to Jones in terms of a timeframe for his return.

Denver Hume is close, and much will depend on how he recovers and reacts to returning in a behind-closed-doors game at the Academy of Light this week.

Tom Flanagan is likely to still be a couple of weeks away.

If we are promoted this season do you think Kyril will open his cheque book to try and get us promoted into the premier league straight away or do you think we should give the championship a season or two to find our feet again?

Well, fingers crossed this is exactly the debate we are having come the summer!

If we are lucky enough to be talking about a Championship campaign, then I have no doubt Sunderland will strengthen their squad with the aim of being very competitive in the second tier.

With that I’d add a major caveat.

The new regime have been absolutely clear that their goal is to make Sunderland a force again but to ensure that they do so while being a sustainable club.

They have also been clear that player development and the academy are absolutely at the heart of that.

This explains why they’ve appointed Kristjaan Speakman as Sporting Director, rather than someone with a strong recruitment background to that role.

So whatever division Sunderland are in next season, a major part of the focus will be identifying players both internally and externally whose value can grow if they are given the opportunity.

I don’t envisage wild spending in either division.

Chris D: This season we’ve seemed to struggle against some of the teams near the bottom of the league and done reasonably well against those near the top. As the vast majority of our remaining matches are against our promotion rivals can this be viewed as a positive?

It’s a really good point Chris and definitely one of the most interesting dynamics of this run-in.

On paper, Sunderland and Peterborough have the toughest fixtures in the top ten (the average points-per-game of the teams they have left to play is 1.5).

As you mention, the positive for the Black Cats is that their record in these games this season is good.

From 13 games against the teams currently in the top ten, they’ve taken 26 points at an average of 2-per-game.

So while the fixture list is challenging, you would hope there is a lot of positivity and optimism in the group.

Credit is also due to Lee Johnson as that poor record against teams at the bottom you mention is starting to improve considerably. I think that owes much to the way he has improved the attacking threat of the team.

It’s all to play for and Sunderland are right in the mix.

How does the club avoid the risk of having a wealthy but inexperienced owner (what advice is he accepting and is there a clear long-term plan)?

It’s a fair question.

I think what sets Kyril Louis-Dreyfus slightly apart from someone of his age generally is that he has obviously been around football for most of his life and so has an instinctive understanding of the business.

He has Igor Levin as a director, and there is another figure with experience of running a major club in Marseille.

On the football side a significant amount of responsibility sits with Kristjaan Speakman, and I think that’s a major departure from both the previous regime and probably much of the Ellis Short era, too.

In Speakman and Steve Davison there is proper day-to-day leadership and direction at the club.

At the moment there seems to be a decent blend of figures Louis-Dreyfus knows and trusts, and people with the relevant expertise to run their departments.

That is reason for optimism, though of course these are early days.

David Keeler: Do you think KLD has plans in place to increase investment for the Ladies team, especially regards an application for a licence to play in the @FAWomensChamp ?

At the moment the issue is that we still don't have any real clarity over whether there will be a licencing process for the Championship for next season.

The FA's announcement last week that Sunderland's division is set to be curtailed also included this fairly concerning line: "There will also be no promotion and relegation between these tiers [3-6] for the 2020/21 season, including no promotion from tier 3 into tier 2 and no relegation from tier 6 into tier 7".

So as it stands, the FA are planning not to bring any teams up from the National League (the initial plan was to bring up the winner of the northern and southern national league, and relegate one from the Championship).

It's brutal for Sunderland, who were runaway leaders last season when it was curtailed and were still very much in the mix this time around.

Sunderland were in the process of applying for a Championship licence when dominating their division last season, and my understanding was that the initial dialogue was very positive.

What's happened since is another cruel sequence of events for what must be one of the most resilient sporting teams around.

It's absolutely crucial that they get the support they need from Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and the new regime.

At the moment, though, their only chance of getting into the second tier for next season is if the FA decide to change tack and open up a space.

It's possible, but not their stated intention as it stands.

Michael Arkley: Do you see Luke O’Nien moving back into midfield when Bailey Wright is back fit or will Lee Johnson continue with a successful CB partnership?

It's such a fascinating question and I honestly find myself torn on it.

I've always felt Luke's position in the end should be in midfield. I always remember Jack Ross pointing out after his first goal away at Shrewsbury that Luke is actually one of the best finishers at the club.

So when Lee Johnson arrived and put a big focus on a high-pressing style, it seemed like the perfect time to get Luke higher up the pitch.

On the one occasion a lack of injuries meant that was actually possible, I thought he played a solid part in a terrific 3-1 win over Doncaster Rovers.

He has been so good at centre-half, though, that I'm honestly not sure I'd want to move him at the moment.

I know there was an error against Lincoln City but to be honest, I think that actually just underlines how good and how consistent he has been over the last ten games.

He is very good in the air, rarely gets beaten in 1-v-1 situations and is pretty quick across the ground.

Most importantly, his anticipation and composure is excellent and I think playing him at centre-half has brought a new dimension to the team.

His ability to step out and break the press by carrying the ball into midfield has been excellent, and helps Sunderland keep the ball. So often you see League One defenders go for touch or simply play it back to the opposition as soon as they come under any pressure.

I think Sunderland look as strong as they ever have done in League One at the moment and the Sanderson-O'Nien partnership is right at the heart of that.

Bailey Wright has been a terrific player for Sunderland since he arrived and once fit, you do think he'll come back into the team with some high-pressure games on the horizon.

I don't think it's a given though and with Carl Winchester now impressing, I'm very comfortable with O'Nien at centre-half.

Michael Bowers: How many wins do you think Sunderland need to secure a top two finish? I personally think 8 wins in our last 11 (maybe a draw or two as well) would do it.

The average number of points needed to win automatic promotion over the last ten seasons has been 90 and I think that's a good target to aim for.

So that leaves 26 points from 11. Eight wins and two draws would obviously take a(nother)sensational run of form but hit it, and I'd be fairly confident that you would win promotion.

Given that both Sunderland and Peterborough have tough run-ins, 87 points may well be enough.

It goes without saying but that game at Peterborough on Easter Monday is massive. I think after that game we'll have a really good sense of what kind of total is going to get you over the line.

How do you see things going in the future with Dion Sanderson?

I wrote about this at length in a column a couple of weeks ago, which you can read here.

First and foremost, there will only be a debate if Sunderland get promoted. He should really be playing Championship football this season and he’s certainly not going to be in the third tier

So Sunderland have to get promoted this season to be part of the debate.

I’d be surprised if Wolves were willing to sell this summer. Sanderson wants to prove himself there and even if Wolves do eventually decide to sell, he is currently nowhere near what his eventual value will be.

A season on loan in the Championship will surely allow Wolves to A) Grow their asset and B) Allow them to make an informed choice on his long-term prospects.

Get promoted, and Sunderland would surely be at the front of the queue for any loan.

Sanderson loves playing for the club, and there is a strong rapport between himself, Lee Johnson and Wolves. That can only be a positive.

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