Top-two contenders or much to improve? What a detailed ten-game review tells us about Sunderland

Ten games, 21 points.

Thursday, 5th November 2020, 1:02 pm

With an early fixture schedule that looked challenging, Phil Parkinson was fair to praise a job relatively well done so far.

That crucial win against Ipswich Town, though, reflected why the optimism on Wearside remains cautious.

Part of that merely reflects the bitter experience of two failed promotion campaigns, and part of it reflects a desire to see a more dominant side carving out greater chances in games (Sunderland had just two shots on target against Paul Lambert's side).

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Sunderland have made a solid start to their League One campaign

To that end, we've taken a close look at the data from the season so far, to see what the trends are and whether that assessment is fair....

THE ATTACKING NUMBERS

A modest goal record was one of the reasons why Sunderland's early results were met with some reservation.

Two crucial wins have bolstered Sunderland's position, but have not fully allayed those concerns about their firepower.

A quick glance at the table makes clear why. Fourteen goals from ten games is not a poor return by any measurement, but it is the joint-lowest in the top ten as it stands (alongside Charlton Athletic).

Scratch beneath the surface, though, and the picture is a little more complicated.

Sunderland's expected-goals tally is excellent, standing currently at 19.41. In fact, it's the highest in the division at this point.

Parkinson spoke recently of his belief that his side's goal returns would increase, as he felt the chance creation was good and that eventually, his side's forward players would begin to benefit.

These numbers back that up, and what also lends strength to that theory is that Charlie Wyke's goalscoring record is beginning to improve dramatically.

For reference, their XG total at this stage last season was 15, and 16.7 the season before that.

Their tally for this season is skewed slightly by the fact that they have won four penalties (Lincoln, second in terms of their XG total, have had six), two of those in recent games when the opposition played a significant chunk of the second half with ten men.

Their attacking numbers more generally present a more balanced picture.

They are seventh in the table for shots-per-game (across the whole of last season they were 11th in this regard), and fourth for touches inside the opposition box (up from sixth across last season). So while they are generating a better quality of chances than their promotion rivals, they are not necessarily as active in the final third generally.

It's a picture that reflects some encouraging trends, with some scope for improvement.

In particular, it raises an obvious question about whether Parkinson can improve his team's efficiency with his selection.

Sunderland's style continues to be divisive but the statistics suggest Parkinson's subtle shift to the system this season has been effective in increasing their chance creation.

Underwhelmed by some of what he had seen in pre-season, Parkinson tweaked his 3-4-3 to include an extra striker.

Aiden O'Brien benefited from that switch and in many ways underlined the gap between Sunderland's XG and actual goal tally.

He was one of Sunderland's most active strikers in front of goal in the opening weeks of the campaign, but is still yet to register a league goal.

Given that, as we will explore later, the inclusion of an extra striker has not significantly impacted Sunderland defensively, there has to be an argument that the more regular inclusion of Will Grigg could improve the team's output.

Aside from a desperately poor display against Portsmouth, the Black Cats have visibly enjoyed good control over matches and in that sense, it's fair to wonder whether Sunderland could increase their general attacking output further.

Parkinson should soon call upon Elliot Embleton, and the 21-year-old, two-footed and with real composure in the final third, certainly has the capacity to make an impact.

Elsewhere, it's probably a question of variety.

To that end, many would like to see more of the pace of Jack Diamond, and a more proactive approach within games. The frustrating draw at Rochdale was certainly evidence of that.

THE DEFENSIVE STATISTICS

Sunderland's tally of six clean sheets represents their general defensive strength so far this season, as does their goals conceded column. Only Charlton can match their record of seven conceded thus far.

The statistics reflect the fact that this is no coincidence.

Sunderland have faced the fewest shots in the division, and their expected-goals-against tally of 0.84-per-game is also the best.

Given that Sunderland have had to cope with some injuries to key players along the way, it reflects the strength of their organisation and the development of a defence which is now better equipped to deal with the challenges of League One.

Their XG-against at this stage last season was 0.89, and 1.27 the season before that.

One concern for Parkinson will be that in the last four games, they have seen those numbers rise, with their control of games not as strong.

Generally, though, you suspect that if Sunderland are to fall short in terms of the top two, it will not be down to their defence.

THE VERDICT

The early indications are that this will be another tense battle for automatic promotion.

There is a clear cluster of sides producing a level of performance that reflects their strong early points haul. Perhaps this is unsurprising, given the impact of COVID-19 on club finances.

The more established sides have stronger and deeper squads, the results of which are already showing.

Sunderland, without a doubt, are right in the mix.

Their points tally is good, and that it matches their expected-points tally (which is the best in the division) suggests we can expect it to remain consistent.

The question remains, as it has done for the last twelve months, whether they are producing enough in the final third to come out on the right sight of what will be some inevitably fine margins of the course of a gruelling campaign.

All stats courtesy of wyscout.com

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