The Sunderland blueprint Lee Johnson will hope key injury boosts could allow him to return to

Lee Johnson was clear this week that it is still too early to be really thinking about the play-offs.

Friday, 23rd April 2021, 12:49 pm

After all, the race for the top two is not officially over and as of yet, Sunderland have not yet secured a top-six spot.

The focus for now has to be on securing maximum points from two home games in just four days. After that, there will be a natural moment for pause and reassessment ahead of a clash with a Plymouth Argyle side who are one of the few whose fate this season has been settled.

Nevertheless, Sunderland's encouraging performance at Hull City felt like a significant step if, as seems likely, they are to face the nerve-shredding play-offs once again.

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Charlie Wyke scores against Doncaster in February.

Johnson confirmed afterwards that the 4-3-3 shape he used in the game was his preferred one moving forward, and it was easy to see why.

With the protection of Grant Leadbitter in front of the back four, Sunderland's pressing in the early stages was excellent, Josh Scowen in particular enjoying the opportunity to get higher up the pitch and closer to the opposition defence.

In possession Sunderland always seemed to have another option, less direct and quicker in the way they were able to work the ball into the wide areas.

It was far from a flawless display, but it was one which looked much closer to the aggressive and bold philosophy that Johnson has talked about delivering in the long term.

There were echoes of a superb first-half display against Doncaster Rovers in February, when Sunderland raced into a 3-0 lead at the break.

They were indebted to Lee Burge for two penalty saves in the second half, but it was a convincing win and one that sparked a long unbeaten run.

After the game Johnson was as pleased with the performance as he had been at any stage in his tenure.

"I thought the first half was absolutely outstanding in our press against a very good side," he said.

"You can see in the second half when Doncaster had their spells that they are a very good side. We had to expend a lot of energy early with that high press, it was high risk and high reward and we certainly got that.

"I was really proud of the players today."

Johnson will of course be tactically flexible both for the rest of this season and beyond. Even at Hull, he brought on Aiden O'Brien for some extra presence up front as the home side began to take control, and in the closing minutes that almost led to a winner.

The big question for Johnson is to what extent availability will allow him to stick to this blueprint, both in the closing stages of the regular season and those potentially defining play-off games.

On Tuesday night those encouraging signs going forward were set against defensive errors that allowed Grant McCann's side two goals and a number of other chances.

Johnson said that he felt this was ultimately inevitable. He has been forced to play Bailey Wright three times since returning from a long injury lay-off, while he also has two midfielders playing out of position over a prolonged period of time.

At left-back Denver Hume is stepping up his recovery, and Johnson has urged one of his options in that position to seize the shirt.

Elsewhere, though, his options remain limited for the time being.

Through this long spell of significant defensive injuries he has regularly tweaked his plans accordingly. At times Sunderland have controlled possession in a 3-5-2, at times they have been considerably more direct with O'Brien (whose contributions during this spell were vital) partnering Charlie Wyke in a 4-4-2.

The versatility of Luke O'Nien and Max Power has been a key part of that, both performing well in defensive roles during that impressive unbeaten streak.

O'Nien in particular performed so well that Johnson admitted he was 'back to square one' in terms of assessing a long-term position for the popular 26-year-old.

Tellingly, on Thursday he was discussing the prospect of moving him back into midfield.

Only once has he been able to do that since arriving in December and perhaps not coincidentally, it was in that emphatic Doncaster win.

O'Nien's versatility is a major bonus for Johnson, who has cited him (alongside Lynden Gooch) as potentially allowing him to operate with a smaller squad next season.

There is undoubtedly an appetite to use his energy in midfield nevertheless.

As to whether that will be possible, Johnson had a more optimistic view on Thursday than he did a week ago.

Tom Flanagan looks to have decided to try and play through the pain barrier as he recovers from a foot problem, and though he is not yet back in full training a return looks considerably closer.

Conor McLaughlin is recovering from a hernia operation, and could return for a potential play-off campaign.

Johnson is also waiting anxiously to hear whether Dion Sanderson will be able to return from Wolves to play a part in the final weeks of the season.

The player himself has said he is determined to do exactly that.

"There’s a bit of a race against time to get Tom fit because we know how important he can be," Johnson said.

"We’ve got the same with Conor McLaughlin, who is a very important player for us.

"You imagine those two back and it gives you a lot of versatility to be able to push Luke into midfield or Max into midfield and really sort of work to what we’ve tried to build in terms of energy levels and our press.

“We’ve had to adjust and we've adjusted really well, we’ve had a bit of a blip but now any player back is very welcome."

It feels clear where Johnson would like to get to, but for now it remains very much a race against time.

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