Phil Smith's verdict: Why talk of the January window is telling as Sunderland labour to another underwhelming result

Perhaps the biggest admission of the weekend came even before another challenging afternoon at the Stadium of Light.

Sunday, 24th November 2019, 1:30 pm
Updated Monday, 25th November 2019, 5:12 pm

Speaking to supporters, Executive Director Charlie Methven discussed Phil Parkinson’s ambitions for the upcoming January transfer window.

“The manager was speaking at a talk-in last night and suggested five signings, and I think that’s around where we’ll be,” he said.

It’s beginning to look less like minor alterations, and more like fairly major surgery.

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Sunderland manager Phil Parkinson

It’s telling because when the decision was made to remove Jack Ross from his post, it was made on the assumption that he was underperforming with a squad of players that should be automatic promotion winners this season.

Yes, it was stated that there would be some support in January, but the logic was that a proven League One operator would be able to make the necessary changes to turn underwhelming displays into regular wins.

That the winter window is beginning to dominate discussion and seems to grow in importance with every passing game reflects the flaws in that logic.

Though Benji Kimpioka’s late equaliser may well yet turn out to be a big moment in Sunderland’s season, salvaging a point that keeps them in touch with other play-off contenders, the 89 minutes that preceded it did nothing to challenge the perception that this is a side short of momentum and direction.

Kimpioka’s goal muted the understandable frustration on Wearside for only a brief moment, the deeper problems as clear as they had been through a wretched run of cup performances.

Those had been explained away to an extent, given international absences, injuries, and the obvious need to focus on league competition this season.

But such was the paucity of attacking threat and quality in those matches, it never seemed likely that the return of League One fixtures would suddenly spark a major uplift in performance.

The boos that greeted the half-time whistle, then, came as little surprise.

There were moments in the first half when Sunderland looked as if they could cause Coventry City problems.

The away side came with a brave formula and an unorthodox formation.

With three centre-backs, two wing-backs, four midfielders in central areas and a centre-forward, they were committed to playing out from the back in just about every scenario.

When Sunderland pressed well, they occasionally looked hurried and uncomfortable.

Too often, though, they were able to play through a midfield that Parkinson had bolstered with an extra man just for this game.

When Sunderland gave possession away, as Parkinson admitted they did too often in the opening 45, they broke quickly into dangerous areas.

So although the game looked similar in terms of possession and territory, it was the visitors who had look by far the more incisive. If not for the profligacy of striker Amadou Bakayoko in front of goal, the game could have been as good as done.

The home side had produced just one shot on target, a long-range free-kick from Aiden McGeady straight at goalkeeper Marko Marosi.

Even more concerning was the response, or lack of, after the break.

The pressing that had been only sporadic in the first half evaporated almost entirely, Coventry under little pressure as they moved the ball with little concern.

Marosi remained untested and it was not until the introduction of Duncan Watmore that Sunderland finally began to look as if they could test the opposition.

His pace and ability to exploit the gap between the centre-back and the wing-backs at least pushed Coventry back a little and they will rue the way they approached the last 20 minutes of the game.

The runners from midfield dropped deeper and deeper, the poise on the ball disappeared and they invited Sunderland to test them.

That felt reflective of a division where Wycombe continue to churn out remarkable results and Ipswich impress, but the teams below them look well short of the conviction and consistency required to haul them in at this stage.

Coventry will have left this game frustrated, the closing stages indicative of a side capable of challenging but seemingly not quite there yet.

Sunderland’s woes in front of goal leave them with even bigger questions to ponder.

Parkinson prioritised improving the performances of Sunderland’s forward players when he arrived but ten games in, little progress has been made.

They have scored ten goals in that time, five of them in that rout of Tranmere.

Grigg, McGeady and Maguire look desperately short of rhythm and confidence.

If there had been signs of a pattern of play emerging in those early home games after Ross depared, the regression has been stark. Sunderland look muddled and laboured.

Kimpioka’s late intervention gives the table a more flattering look ahead of the visit of a Burton Albion side struggling for form further down the table.

That the January window has taken on such an importance is a tacit reflection that the issues at Sunderland run far deeper than simply the on-field management of the first team.

This is a team and a squad lacking identity and the change of manager has so far only deepened the malaise.

Little wonder talk off the pitch has turned so quickly to the next transfer window.