Phil Smith's verdict: Inside the 'philosophy tweak' delivering impressive Sunderland form amid an injury crisis

Lee Johnson's reflections after that wretched night at Shrewsbury felt significant.

Wednesday, 3rd March 2021, 2:01 pm

The Sunderland Head Coach talked of getting back to basics and putting round pegs in round holes.

When Doncaster arrived at the Stadium of Light a few days later his team selection showed him being true to his word, and the comprehensive win that followed appeared to lay down something of a template.

Luke O'Nien and Max Power reinstalled in midfield; Conor McLaughlin back at full-back. The pressing was aggressive, the service to the two wingers quick and efficient.

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Charlie Wyke scores a crucial goal at the Stadium of Light

It was the best example we had seen yet of the 'counterpressing' game that Johnson was brought to the club by Kristjaan Speakman to implement.

It's to the credit of both Johnson and his squad that even as injuries have forced a complete overhaul of that Doncaster XI, they have taken big steps towards the top two.

This win was a tough watch at times but the League One table speaks for itself; a major step forward.

The Sunderland Head Coach, buoyed by how strong his side had finished the game against Fleetwood last week, had attempted to move back to one of his preferred systems at Crewe Alexandra on Saturday.

Against a good side on their own turn and a powerful front two, the move backfired with Sunderland tentative and all too often just outright overrun.

It came as no surprise, then, to see Johnson revert to a back three for the opening stages of Swindon's visit but even then, there were further problems.

In this tricky period Conor McLaughlin's experience and versatility has been crucial but a setback in his recovery from a hernia operation left Johnson with just two senior defenders available.

When Sunderland travelled to Swindon earlier this season they ended the game with what looked then to be just about the most unorthodox back five you could ever expect to see: Diamond, McLaughlin, Wright, O'Nien, Gooch.

Here, they started the game with one to trump even that: Gooch, Power, Sanderson, O'Nien, McFadzean.

Johnson had joked when this injury crisis first started to bite that one upside could be it moving him closer to realising his dream of fielding a team of eleven central midfielders.

Tongue may have been firmly in cheek but Sunderland's Head Coach has tried to embrace the circumstances as much as possible and as a result his side have taken on a slightly different style.

While defensively they are clearly a touch more uncertain, the personnel he is naming at the back does mean that he can have confidence in their ability to carry the ball out and start moves.

Power in particular made an impressive start to a most unfamiliar role at the right of the back three, orchestrating the play in front of him and helping to build up moves down the right flank.

Sunderland took almost complete control of possession from the off; Swindon's ambition clearly limited.

Brett Pitman is a powerful striker who has caused the Black Cats problems in the past but here he was too isolated and what little service he did have was impressively swept up by Sanderson and O'Nien.

Those opening exchanges were the perfect example of Johnson having adapted to a more 'total football' philosophy as he bids to manage the options he currently has.

There was a spell in the first half where Swindon looked as if they might buckle but they dug in and gradually the hosts began to lose their way.

Too many slack passes as they tried to force the issue, too many cheap free kicks gifted away as frustration grew. Control had turned into too much sterile possession.

So threatening in his cameo on Saturday, Jordan Jones was struggling to find the time and space on the ball to do damage.

Charlie Wyke was too isolated, a problem regular earlier this season but less so when Johnson has been able to field his strongest side and commit more bodies up front.

As he had done a week ago, Johnson gambled that he could on this occasion afford to move another player further forward.

At the break he also urged his central midfielders to be a little braver and more ambitious in possession.

The improvements were evident but it took another moment of magic from Chris Maguire off the bench to win the game. His set piece inch perfect, the header from Wyke superb.

On a tough night Wyke had set the tone for his team, relentless in his pressing and willingness to run the channels. His goal was the reward he deserved.

There were nervy moments towards the end as Swindon were finally stung into action, their undoubtedly talented midfield players finally given the licence to get the ball down and cause problems.

Sunderland held on, thanks to a fine save from Lee Burge and some important interventions from their makeshift backline.

In this there was much to relish.

So much of this game was reminiscent of the frustrating draws and defeats on home turf this season, but through a combination of in-game changes and a willingness to use the depth of the squad early, Sunderland are increasingly finding a way to win.

With sterner challenges as the month develops, Johnson will be eager to get some of his key defenders back in action.

Right now the list of absentees could reasonably be considered the best backline in the division: McLaughlin, Willis, Wright, Flanagan, Hume.

In their absence Johnson knows he will struggle to find the kind of balance he needs.

That optimism is rightly growing across Wearside is testament to how he and his squad are coping in the meantime.

This was a night where the result was far more important than the performance, and they found a way to deliver it.

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