Revealed: Lee Johnson's key priorities at Sunderland AFC - from youngsters to Will Grigg
Lee Johnson has already got a good look at his Sunderland squad - and will now know where his priorities lie.
After numerous names were linked with the vacancy, Sunderland opted for the former Bristol City boss and confirmed his appointment on Saturday afternoon.
And having led the side in their 1-0 defeat to Wigan, Johnson will now have a good idea of where he needs to improve the side.
But what will the key priorities be for him? We take a look:
GET THE DEFENCE BACK TO THEIR BEST
With the underwhelming nature of Sunderland's recent performances, it’s easy to forget just how impressive the defensive unit were at the start of the campaign.
Bailey Wright, Jordan Willis and Tom Flanagan had developed a fine partnership that saw the Black Cats register six clean sheets in their opening ten games in all competitions.
But the previously watertight defence has begun to look leaky in recent weeks.
We saw in the early weeks of the season how a strong defence can provide a solid platform from which to build, and it will be imperative for Sunderland’s new manager to ensure they keep things tight at the back as they look to implement their own style and system on the side – otherwise, results may be hard to come by in the short-term.
The pieces all seem to be there. In Wright, Flanagan, Willis, Denver Hume, Dion Sanderson, Conor McLaughlin and Luke O’Nien, the Black Cats have a defensive unit which should provide some real solidity.
The key for Johnson will be finding the right combination and system to ensure Sunderland return to their watertight ways.
That may be aided given he has already worked with Wright previously and so knows the strengths of one of his key defensive players.
ADDRESS THE LACK OF GOALS
This isn’t a new problem.
Sunderland have struggled for goals ever since the departure of Josh Maja and haven’t scored more than two goals in a league game in over a month.
That’s a concern, and certainly isn’t a record that points to a side being a promotion challenger.
In Charlie Wyke, Danny Graham and Will Grigg, the club have a frontline which is experienced in League One and should score goals at this level – even if you wouldn’t hang your hat on one individual being as prolific as Maja was in the 2018/19 campaign.
And while there is arguably a case for Sunderland to dip into the market in January to add another striker to their ranks, that may not be possible due to the constraints of the League One salary cap.
So Johnson may have to work with the forwards at his disposal for the time being.
That could mean trying to get the best out of the likes of Aiden O’Brien, who is yet to hit his full stride at the Stadium of Light, or slightly more advanced roles for Chris Maguire and Lynden Gooch – both of whom could certainly deliver in front of goal.
Johnson has already spoken of a need to work on getting bodies into the box and ensuring his player’s movement is correct, and hopefully that will yield rewards in the coming weeks.
INCORPORATE THE YOUNGSTERS
While Jack Diamond and Dan Neil were involved in the first-team squad in pre-season – and have featured in the Papa John’s Trophy – we’re yet to see the duo really given a chance to make their mark in the league.
That has to change.
With the aforementioned salary cap – and the associated squad cap, which will become even tighter in the next two seasons – it has never been more important that Sunderland give opportunities to their younger players.
Neil has consistently shone on his fleeting first-team appearances and could certainly add a different dimension to Sunderland’s engine room.
Diamond, meanwhile, may benefit from the varying tactical outlook a new manager may bring. While he did a solid job at wing-back under Parkinson, he’s always looked more comfortable as an out-and-out winger.
It’s imperative that Sunderland start to hand more consistent chances to these players, and a host more.
And if they can’t, for whatever reason, then appropriate loans need to be arranged to ensure the club’s youngsters are not allowed to stagnate.
Johnson needs to ensure these young players are managed properly and developed efficiently – as that could well be where the future lies for Sunderland.
SOLVE THE WILL GRIGG AND AIDEN McGEADY DILEMMAS
The question over Aiden McGeady has perhaps already been answered.
Johnson said in his post-match press conference that McGeady would be handed a clean slate, and his start against Wigan was evidence of that.
He could prove a valuable player for Johnson once fully fit – as too could Grigg.
The striker hasn’t yet got firing since moving to the Stadium of Light, but the new Head Coach may relish the challenge of re-igniting the Northern Irish international.
DEVELOP A RELIABLE PLAN B
While Sunderland’s style of play under Parkinson was effective at times, they lack a real alternative for when things weren’t going so well.
The system was scarcely changed and the Black Cats, at times, became very predictable.
Key for the new manager will be finding multiple ways in which to play – for those more stubborn tests which will undoubtedly await over the course of a League One season.
The new man in charge will have to ensure the side are flexible and ready to adapt, something Johnson is used to.