Stewart Donald's appearance at Burton Albion examined as Sunderland climb the League One form table
Three goals, three points and no shortage of talking points.
Sunderland’s win at Burton Albion was littered with interesting storylines that were dissected by supporters on social media following the game.
We take a look at some of the big talking points from the 3-0 win at the Pirelli Stadium:
STEWART DONALD’S RETURN
Pre-match much of the focus was on whether Kyril Louis-Dreyfus would be in attendance following the approval of his appointment as chairman earlier this week.
The 24-year-old was indeed watching on at the Pirelli Stadium – but it was the appearance of outgoing chairman Stewart Donald that had many talking in the moments before kick-off.
Donald has attended several fixtures this season and still retains a minority stake in the club, which reports have suggested is around 15 per cent.
The former owner had said in December that he would ‘follow from afar’ once Louis-Dreyfus’ takeover was confirmed and, while he was present at this game, it is now very much the new chairman who is calling the shots on Wearside.
FLEXIBLE AND UNPREDICTABLE – A FINE COMBINATION
One of the major issues towards the end of Phil Parkinson’s reign was that Sunderland had become too predictable in their shape and style of play.
The Black Cats were fairly one-dimensional and teams were quickly able to figure out how to nulify the side and then exploit them at the back.
But the same criticisms cannot be levied at Lee Johnson during the early months of his reign.
Sunderland are now more flexible tactically, switching between shapes with confidence and ease. That’s the case fixture-to-fixture and within games too, and was perfectly exemplified at Burton.
Having enjoyed some success in the last week with a 4-3-3, defensive injuries meant that shape had to change at Burton and Sunderland instead started in a 3-4-3.
You wouldn’t have known the side were playing a new shape or indeed fielding just one recognised centre half as they impressed in the first half.
Then having gone 3-0 up late on, Johnson was able to switch back to a back four in order to see the game out.
Sunderland's players deserve great credit for executing these switches so seamlessly, as do Johnson and his coaching staff for ensuring they are adequately prepared to do so.
The head coach has often talked about not wanting to ‘tactically fatigue’ the players, but he seems to be on the right side of that for the time being.
THE LEFT-SIDED DILEMMA CONTINUES
Callum McFadzean missed out on the win at his former club through concussion, meaning that Jake Vokins was handed just a third start since arriving on Wearside.
It was a better performance from the Southampton youngster, albeit the game was another where Sunderland looked vulnerable down the left flank.
Much of that was to do with the fact that Burton sent most of their play through the lively Jonny Smith, who posed the Black Cats some problems – so much so that Lee Johnson had to urge Sunderland to ‘stop letting him cut inside’ (we’ve tidied up the language slightly).
But while there were still defensive question marks, Vokins showed some of his quality in the final third and got into some good areas.
His deliveries were mixed, and he arguably should have scored after finding himself on the end of an Aiden McGeady cross, but the performance was a much better one.
Whether it’s enough for Vokins to cement his place in the side remains to be seen – but it would be no surprise to see him feature again against Fleetwood Town on Tuesday evening.
THOSE LEAGUE ONE REFS…
Craig Hicks hasn’t been Sunderland’s favourite official during their time in League One.
He has previously sent-off Max Power, Luke O’Nien and Charlie Wyke – although the former two of those were later rescinded.
And Hicks was again card-happy at the Pirelli Stadium, brandishing no fewer than ten yellow cards over the course of the afternoon. Two of those resulted in Josh Earl’s dismissal for the hosts, while both Jamie McAllister and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink were also cautioned.
It was a game that always felt like it had a red card in it – but thankfully for Sunderland, it didn’t fall for them.
THE FORM TABLE
It’s two wins on the bounce for Sunderland in League One now, and the Black Cats have lost just one of their last six in the league.
That encouraging run has been reflected in the division’s form table, with Johnson’s side having picked up 11 points during their more recent half a dozen games.
Only five teams have picked up more points during that period, and only two of those teams are above Sunderland in the league.
Such form now needs to be maintained if the Black Cats are to keep closing the gap on the top two.
WILL HE EVER STOP SCORING?
It’s now 23 goals for the season for Charlie Wyke, who continued his scintillating form of late by wrapping-up the win at Burton late on.
The striker is in a rich vein of form and that’s now six goals in three games, with the confidence clearly flooding through him.
But while his goals have naturally hogged the headlines, Wyke’s overall play is also on the up – with his performances of late about far more than just goals.
His movement, link-ups and hold-up play have been superb in recent weeks. Long may that continue.