What the four January signings tell us about Lee Johnson and Kristjaan Speakman's Sunderland vision - and what fans can expect

The success of Sunderland's January window will very obviously be defined by where they stand in the table on May 8th.

Monday, 1st February 2021, 12:56 pm
Updated Monday, 1st February 2021, 12:57 pm

More broadly, though, the key question is whether the four additions will move Lee Johnson's Sunderland side closer to the style he was brought in to implement.

Johnson arrived promising a 'bold' team in all aspects.

When Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman outlined the philosophy he wanted to instill at the club, an aggressive and high press was near the very top of the list.

Sign up to our Sunderland AFC newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

His head coach spoke of playing 'vertical, but not long ball'. In short, at a high tempo and with plenty of pace.

It took just 90 minutes to underline why that was going to be a long and potentially bumpy journey, long-standing shortcomings exposed in a bitterly frustrating 1-0 defeat against Wigan Athletic.

Unsurprisingly, Johnson's thoughts were already turning to this window.

“I do think it looks like we need a bit of help in terms of a couple of attributes,” Johnson said.

January signing Jake Vokins

"Maybe somebody to stretch the game in a certain position, maybe we need a bit of extra pace and power. I think that will open it up for other players to come in to it – that would be a priority.

"When you're trying to play through an opposition it can look quite repetitive so you need to be able to not only play through but play around, and that's when you need speed, and also to play over and that's certainly when you need speed."

Johnson's progress in moving towards a more dynamic style with the current squad has been mixed.

The factors in that are myriad, and the impact of a COVID-19 outbreak that halted momentum and prevented crucial training-ground work cannot be overstated.

Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman

There has been a slight shift in the seemingly preferred system, 4-3-3 moving to 4-2-2-2 as he attempts to get more bodies both in the box and on the edge of it.

Jack Diamond's rise has been a welcome one, bringing some much-needed dynamism in the wide areas even if the youngster's end product remains an obvious work in progress.

There have been spells in games where you can see the plan beginning to come together. Shrewsbury Town looked as if they would be overwhelmed in an uplifting opening half hour to that game, Sunderland pressing well and moving the ball with intent in possession.

Though the standard of opposition was clearly lower, there was also a sign of another approach in a Papa John's Trophy win over Port Vale, the Black Cats dominant in possession and patient, too.

There have also, though, been long spells in games where Sunderland have not only lacked control but have struggled to build coherent spells of pressure.

Ross Stewart's arrival is arguably the most interesting of the window, and also the hardest to judge.

Arguably Johnson's biggest priority was to find a forward player capable of making those runs in behind to stretch and disrupt the opposition back four.

Charlie Wyke has looked at his best and most dangerous alongside another forward in a central area, and Stewart is expected to have that impact in both the short and long term.

Like Carl Winchester, his contractual status brought him into Sunderand's financial range and is a reflection of Sunderland's move to a greater use of analytics in their recruitment.

Both of those players performed strongly statistically when it came to the attributes the Black Cats were searching for.

With limited League One experience, though, both are obvious steps into the unknown.

The same applies to Jake Vokins, though that in some ways looks to be Sunderland's strongest deal. The Black Cats were rocked by Denver Hume's hamstring injury and given the salary cap squeeze they are operating under, to sign a player of his calibre was welcome.

A naturally left-footed full back already looks vital to the balance of Johnson's side and Hume's absence has been keenly felt.

The arrival of Jordon Jones reduces the dependence on Aiden McGeady and Diamond in wide areas, the only real question being his match fitness after a prolonged spell on the sidelines at Rangers.

His arrival has been perhaps the most warmly received by the Black Cats fanbase; a reflection of the frustration with the lack of dynamism in the side over the last 18 months.

One encouraging trend of Johnson’s tenure to date is that slowly but surely, they are building a counter-attacking threat and Jones will help maintain that through 90 minutes.

Without being able to make a full judgement on any of the arrivals at this point, there are two key positives.

One is that Johnson now has two different options for each forward position, giving him a variety he clearly did not have on day one.

The second is that there is a clear alignment in what he stated he was seeking at the outset, and the players who have arrived. That represents a positive early reflection of his relationship with Speakman, particularly given the challenges they have faced in terms of the salary cap and the threadbare recruitment department they have inherited.

If there are areas of concern, then one would be that the midfield perhaps still lacks some creativity and it is up to Winchester to allay that in the coming weeks.

Many also feel that Sunderland still lack the consistency and composure that Jon McLaughlin brought in goal for the previous two seasons.

Johnson's fundamental challenge is in finding the consistency within games to go on the kind of winning run required to cut the gap to the top.

Given the takeover cloud that still hangs over the club, and the ongoing battle with the challenging salary cap, the incoming business done looks like a solid attempt to begin a broader overhaul of the squad.

A message from the Football Clubs Editor

Our aim is to provide you with the best, most up-to-date and most informative Sunderland AFC coverage 365 days a year.

We’ve launched a new transfer window special offer for readers to get 20% off our subscription package.

Use the promo code TRANSFER20 to sign up here.

Your support is much appreciated. Richard Mennear, Football Clubs Editor