Lee Johnson identifies this key change of style in his developing Sunderland side

Lee Johnson believes that the changing profile of his Sunderland squad will make the side a more potent attacking force in the long run.
Lee Johnson is hoping that his January business will help improve Sunderland's attacking threatLee Johnson is hoping that his January business will help improve Sunderland's attacking threat
Lee Johnson is hoping that his January business will help improve Sunderland's attacking threat

A lack of variety in Sunderland’s forward play has been a key problem for the Black Cats this season, and indeed in the early weeks of Johnson’s tenure.

It remains very much a work in progress for the head coach, who is trying to overhaul the team’s playing style. That process has been complicated by a COVID-19 outbreak over the festive period, and the hectic fixture schedule that has followed and significantly limited time on the training ground.

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There are, though, clear signs of a shift and Johnson has done that by finding solutions from both within his squad and the transfer market.

Sunderland head coach Lee JohnsonSunderland head coach Lee Johnson
Sunderland head coach Lee Johnson

Aiden McGeady was brought back into fold following his year-long exclusion, while Jack Diamond has also enjoyed increased gametime in a more natural forward position.

Alongside the arrival of Jordan Jones on loan from Rangers, the squad has an increased capacity to hurt teams in the transition from defence to attack.

Johnson hopes that the introduction of Ross Stewart, who is likely to be in contention for selection from this weekend, will further help this process.

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"We've got to be in control of games as much as possible, in any division really but especially in this one, on and off the ball,” Johnson said.


“Then you've got to have the firepower in terms of movement, quality, pace and power in the transition.

“Depending on form and how we're looking in training, and young players like Jack Diamond who seems to tear teams apart in the last half hour, all of a sudden we've got players who are athletic, mobile and take players on.

“And if it’s not happening for them on any particular day, no problem, on comes the next one and we go again.

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“We want to press from the front and we've got to be brave. That's the thing because we are going to get caught out at times by playing it, but I do believe that over 100 games we're going to score a lot more goals than we concede from it.

Sunderland signing Ross StewartSunderland signing Ross Stewart
Sunderland signing Ross Stewart

“We've scored some fantastic goals since we came in, in terms of the movement, playing forward, having the attitude to turn.”

Johnson initially set up his side in a 4-3-3 system after his arrival, but in recent weeks that has shifted to a 4-2-2-2.

The head coach believes the similarities in the system mean they are an ideal ‘starting point’ for his side, but he has been insistent in his message that the demands of the schedule mean he will need to be versatile within games themselves.

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“I think those two systems are the starting point for us, the 4-3-3 and the 4-2-2-2,” he said.

“We've made no secret of that. They are very similar but obviously it is just about getting the extra body where you need.

“You can start off with that mindset of the 4-4-2 and then drop the extra body wherever that maybe.

“You saw in the Papa John's Trophy game at MK Dons we dropped that into defence with a 5-4-1 defensively.

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“We have got the personnel and players to do that, and I think what that means is the players have got to trust me, and I've got to trust them. I do a lot of work on the tactical scenarios before a game and there's a lot of work that goes into that.

“You will see a lot of quick, bold changes.

“Sometimes they will work, sometimes they won't.

“Sometimes there might be some bafflement externally if we change three or four [players] around but we trust our work and believe over a period of time [it will pay off].

“Having a strong bench means that players are starting knowing that if they're not at it, someone is coming on and they will probably not start the next game.”

Consistency of performance through games has been Johnson’s biggest issue, with the new head coach suffering from a frustrating number of draws since his arrival.

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It’s an issue that troubled his two predecessors in the job and Saturday’s frustrating 2-2 draw underlined the hurdle that the Black Cats will have to overcome if they are to realise their promotion ambitions this season.

Sunderland carved out some excellent attacking openings in the latter stages of the first half and in an open second half, but a slack period after Charlie Wyke’s goal cost them dearly.

"I liked a lot of our performance, but I didn't like a fifteen-minute spell in the first half," Johnson said.

"It wasn't just the goals, it's easy to say when you concede two. It was our sloppiness, our lack of urgency, it was like we scored the goal and thought we'd sit it out.

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"We didn't squeeze up enough, in or out of possession, we didn't communicate well enough.

"At half time I was pretty aggressive in telling them that because if we play like we did for the rest of the game for 96 minutes, teams will not live with us.

"We've been unfortunate today, a really poor set of officials and some wayward finishing, and good goalkeeping as well.”

The Black Cats face a Shrewsbury Town side on Tuesday night who caused them problems in a narrow 1-0 win at the Stadium of Light last month, and whose 1-0 win over Swindon Town on Saturday lifted them six points clear of safety.