The winners and losers of Lee Johnson's Sunderland reign so far - from struggling summer signings to exciting youngsters
Four games in, and plenty of early impressions already made.
Lee Johnson’s early weeks at the Stadium of Light haven’t been without their drama, both on and off the field, but the head coach will be keeping his eyes closely fixed on what happens over the white line.
His first four games have yielded two wins, a draw and a defeat, while there have also been plenty of interesting individual performances.
So with that in mind, who have been the key beneficiaries of his time in charge so far? And who still has work to do to convince the new Sunderland boss?
We take a look at the winners and losers of Johnson's time so far, and why there is still work to do for some experienced players within the squad:
Charlie Wyke – The striker missed Johnson’s first game in charge and was introduced as a substitute in his second, with injury meaning Wyke wasn’t given an immediate chance to shine. In his absence, Will Grigg caught the eye and – while he failed to find the net – there were some encouraging signs from the big-money signing. Yet it’s Wyke who has again established himself as Sunderland’s first-choice during Johnson’s early games in command. His performance at Lincoln City in the 4-0 win was arguably as good as we’ve seen from the striker, and the focus down the flank allows Wyke to concentrate on getting in the box and getting on the end of deliveries. He’s improving when it comes to pressing, too, and the signs are bright for the former Bradford City man under the new regime.
Lee Burge – The stopper had lost his place in the side towards the end of Phil Parkinson’s time in charge, with Remi Matthews preferred for the latter games of his reign. But Burge has found himself back in the side and has impressed. There was little he could do about the goals conceded against Wigan and Wimbleon and, while he was rarely troubled at Lincoln, he twice did well to force Brennan Johnson when we broke through on goal – and was perhaps the unsung hero of that triumph.
Jack Diamond – On the periphery of the first-team squad under Parkinson, the academy graduate was limited to an occasional substitute appearance alongside outings in the EFL Trophy during the early weeks of the season. But the arrival of Johnson has brought with it more opportunities, and Diamond has repaid the faith shown in him with some promising outings. In 45 minutes at Lincoln, he showed exactly what he can bring to this Sunderland side and he was again one of the better performers in the midweek draw with AFC Wimbledon. His pace and directness are attributes that are lacking elsewhere in the squad, and ones which are key to the way Sunderland will now look to play. So while Johnson will still be keen to recruit some additional pace and power once the January transfer window opens, expect Diamond to be in and around the first-team picture for the foreseeable future.
Aiden McGeady – One of Johnson’s first acts after being appointed as Sunderland’s new head coach was to hand McGeady a first league start in over a year. It was a clean slate for the winger, who had fallen completely out of favour under Parkinson. We’re still yet to see the best of McGeady, who is understandably still working his way back to full fitness. But having now been fully welcomed back into the first-team fold, there is optimism that the 34-year-old could prove a key player as the season progresses. His quality could certainly help in some of those tighter encounters.
Remi Matthews – The stopper has struggled for form since his summer arrival, and has largely been restricted to cup appearances. But towards the end of Parkinson’s time in the dugout, Matthews started to be handed opportunities and was between the sticks at Fleetwood in what proved to be the manager’s final game. Johnson, though, has quickly restored Lee Burge to his starting line-up and looks set to keep faith with the former Coventry City man moving forward. The onus now, then, is on Matthews to show why he deserves to start – with under-23 stopper Anthony Patterson also putting his name into contention.
Danny Graham – Things haven’t quite gone to plan since Graham returned to Wearside in the summer. He's yet to score a league goal and is arguably now third in the pecking order up front – with Wyke the established number one and Grigg already proving his worth to Johnson. The experienced Graham is yet to be handed a real opportunity under Johnson, but may yet get the chance to show what he can bring to the side. But he faces an uphill battle to dislodge Wyke, who seems to have hit a rich vein of form and brings a great deal of what Johnson is looking for in a number nine.
George Dobson – Dobson has largely had to play second fiddle so far this term, with Max Power, Josh Scowen and Grant Leadbitter ahead of him in the pecking order. And Johnson has thus far kept faith with that midfield trio, who seem to fit well into his desired setup. Dobson was handed a chance against AFC Wimbledon after the club’s COVID-19 outbreak but failed to really make an impression. There’s work to do for the former Walsall man, then.