The clear January priorities Sunderland boss Phil Parkinson is likely to pursue after underwhelming start
Phil Parkinson had identified this run of cup games as crucial in forming his plans for a January window that is increasingly looking pivotal to Sunderland’s chances of promotion this season.
With performances mixed to put it mildly, and culminating in the woeful 3-0 defeat to Scunthorpe, he will no doubt feel he has a lot of answers to the questions he has been weighing up since arriving on Wearside last month.
So what will he be weighing up and where is likely to be looking at this stage?
We run you through it, position by position…..
An area of the pitch where Parkinson is ultimately in a relatively strong position.
Lee Burge has proved to be an excellent addition. His character is praised regularly behind the scenes, by this management team and the last who brought him to Wearside, while on the pitch he has been impressive and more than earned his opportunity.
The bigger question is how the situation with Jon McLaughlin develops over the coming weeks.
For the most part, he has been steady enough since returning to the side after Burge’s injury, aside from that uncharacteristic error against Gillingham.
His form has clearly dipped this season, however, not helped by the bizarre contract talks that are seemingly still making no progress.
An international goalkeeper of great character and with years of consistency under his belt will be of interest to a number of clubs should he enter the last six months of his deal.
He has said that he wants to stay, and Sunderland are absolutely better off with him, but while his contract and place in the team is in doubt, it’s hard to guess how this will pan out.
Parkinson inherited an improving unit and things have generally continued in that manner.
Jordan Willis and Joel Lynch have established a very solid partnership and both look like excellent options at this level.
Though assistant Steve Parkin fairly pointed out that Alim Ozturk’s injury left them looking a little light, he has proven he can be a worthy alternative to that pair and his absence is not expected to be a long one.
Solid performances in the cup from Tom Flanagan leave him as another back-up currently down the pecking order but capable of stepping in if required.
The full-backs are a more interesting dilemma, though the situation does not look as critical as it did in the early weeks of the season.
Though he still has much to improve defensively, Denver Hume has been good on home turf and his ball-carrying ability is going to be key against deep defence. Scunthorpe’s Alex Gilliead did show again on Tuesday night that teams can exploit his attacking intent, particularly when there is little defensive protection in front of him.
Conor McLaughlin still looks to be short of his best form on the other flank, which is key in that consistent performances in that position free Luke O’Nien up to do more damage further forward.
It’s not a faultless unit, and one still suffering from the occasional lapse in concentration, but at this stage the new Black Cats boss seems likely to prioritise the other end of the pitch in his desire for improvements through the transfer market.
Parkinson began his tenure with a midfield three but an insipid showing at Wycombe quickly saw that abandoned.
Given the intensity he wants his side to play with, particularly on home turf, it seems highly unlikely to return in crucial games.
Grant Leadbitter played at the base of midfield again against Scunthorpe but the team again struggled to make an impression in advanced areas.
One of Parkinson’s better calls so far has been settling on a pairing of Max Power and George Dobson.
Both are producing a level of consistency in performance and crucially, bringing an energy that allows Sunderland to ‘lock in’ their attacks, reducing the side’s vulnerability in transition when the lose possession.
Dobson’s relentless running has been particularly effective in that sense.
It leaves, at this stage, little room for Leadbitter and Dylan McGeouch.
Parkinson is unlikely to write them off based purely on that Leicester City U21 game, acknowledging himself that the balance of the side was not right. Regardless of their individual talents, they are not an obvious pairing and the manager recognised that.
Nevertheless, neither seems to fit the profile of what Parkinson wants in that part of the pitch and it could well be that summer interest from north of the border in McGeouch is revived at the turn of the year.
One of the biggest positives for Parkinson thus far is that Duncan Watmore has been able to play regularly and make an impact.
The only time he has been a doubt was due to a virus, rather than a physical injury.
It offers a completely different threat in the final third and one that Ross was desperate to get into his side.
There is a reality, though, that Watmore is still finding his way back to full match fitness and when the brutal winter schedule bites, Parkinson needs depth.
He tried Benji Kimpioka in the role Watmore plays so well against Leicester City U21s but the Swede looked well off the pace, playing with lots of energy but little quality and tactical discipline.
With Lynden Gooch injured, it has underlined how Sunderland can be lacking that direct and pacy threat.
Particularly at home, it can be too easy for opposition teams to sit in and defend and Parkinson is desperate to avoid that.
Chris Maguire and AIden McGeady bring unquestionable quality but at the moment, consistency is elusive.
Luke O’Nien’s excellent form and energetic style playing off the striker is increasingly looking like the long-term solution but any setback for Watmore or Gooch might leave Sunderland needing to act come January.
At the moment, this looks like being Sunderland’s biggest priority heading into the January window.Parkinson has been clear that he is broadly happy with the way his side have improved their general approach play, citing the increase in number of crosses they’re getting into the box.
Where he is disappointed is how they have failed to turn dominance in games into shots on target and a clinical streak in the box.
He has urged one of his three strikers to make that position their own.
Charlie Wyke has had little chance to make an impression given the injury he suffered shortly after Parkinson took charge, and will without doubt get a chance to lead the line on his return.
Will Grigg was given significant public backing by Parkinson but has regressed after a promising showing against Tranmere Rovers.
Marc McNulty had perhaps been unlucky not to get more opportunities, generally the most threatening striker so far this season and certainly the most adept at stretching the game and turning defenders back towards their own goal.
Just like Jack Ross, Parkinson has found that a skill too rare in the squad.
McNulty made little impression at Scunthorpe, though.
Parkinson wants a centre-forward confident in attacking crosses but also bringing energy in the final third.
At this stage, Parkinson clearly has not found the option he feels pivotal and so though the Black Cats have proven options at this level, it seems certain that as it stands, some reshuffling is on the cards.
Such is Sunderland’s form at the moment, it’s hard to say any area of the pitch does not need an uplift.
Parkinson, though, made clear where he sees the biggest issue in the aftermath of the Scunthorpe defeat.
“We've got to stick together, get the players who are injured back quickly and put a team out that has got a real presence at the top of the pitch.
“That's not being critical of Sparky [Marc McNulty] tonight, it was a tough ask for him, I thought he worked very, very hard and it nearly dropped for him a couple of times in that second half, but not quite.
“He needs some help up there and we need to help the team as well with getting some strength up there,” he added.
“We're not looking threatening enough at the top end of the pitch, we're just not.
“That is a key problem, personnel is against us in terms of the injuries we've got.
“Any team at any level is only as good as their strikeforce and that's frustrating coming here tonight, that we lack that punch, drive and bite in the final third.”
He has been assured of backing in January and he will need it.
Critical, too, is that he finds a way to ensure that Sunderland are still very much in the hunt at the turn of the year.
That will take an uplift from the squad he has at his disposal now.