A brighter future at the Stadium of Light?

An analysis of Sunderland AFC

Sunderland fans have reason to be optimistic after a change of ownership, giving the club a much needed change and hope for the future. Despite a relatively mixed season so far, the appointment of Lee Johnson, a new Sporting Director and a change of ownership suggests the club is taking a new direction. The resurgence of assist merchant McGeady and goal machine Wyke, could also help in their push for promotion.

The League One season so far…

League One, like most leagues in world football, has been affected by Covid-19. Since December, numerous clubs suffered postponed fixtures due to the pandemic, but the table is now taking shape with Lincoln City taking the top spot currently, sitting on 53 points. The play-off places are still within reach of many, with just 5 points separating 6th and 12th. Despite a mixed start to the season, Sunderland are currently in 7th. After bringing in Lee Johnson and the appointment of new Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman in December 2020, things could be looking up for the Black Cats.

A new direction under Lee Johnson

After Sunderland parted ways with Phil Parkinson in November, they appointed Lee Johnson, who guided Bristol City to an 8th place finish in the 2018-19 Championship season. This followed Speakman’s arrival just a day earlier. Whilst at Birmingham City, Speakman operated as the Academy Manager that produced talents such as Nathan Redmond, Jack Butland, Demari Gray and Birmingham’s latest starlet, Jude Bellingham, now at Borussia Dortmund. Could Sunderland fans expect the same level of talent in seasons to come? Compared to the rest of League One, their defensive rating is currently the highest, which is unsurprising given they have only conceded 24 goals this season, with only Lincoln conceding fewer. Despite Charlie Wyke’s scoring form, Sunderland have the 5th highest attacking rating in the league, something that Johnson will be looking to improve on.

 

Since Johnson’s appointment, Sunderland’s form seems to have improved. With an initial period of uncertainty, the results are starting to turn, with 4 wins, 2 draws and only 1 loss from their last 7 games, with their most recent result being a 4-1 win over play-off hopefuls, Doncaster Rovers. Since an initial drop in expected goals conceded and expected goals scored since the change in management, Johnson’s side will be looking to build momentum to push for promotion, as they rely on performances from the likes of Charlie Wyke and Aiden McGeady.

Wyke and McGeady – a winning combination?

Wyke and McGeady have both been in impressive form since the appointment of Johnson. Wyke has struggled for goals in previous seasons netting only 9 times in 54 games in the previous two seasons. However this season, Wyke’s numbers have dramatically improved, scoring 17 league goals in only 25 games, already 12 more than his best League One tally in Sunderland colours. McGeady’s Sunderland career, on the other hand, looked like it was coming to an end after falling out of favour with Parkinson. Under Johnson, he seems to be back to his best after providing 8 assists and 2 goals in 12 games this season.

Wyke and McGeady seem to be building a good relationship on the pitch, with McGeady assisting all 4 of Wyke’s headed goals in their 4-1 win over Doncaster Rovers. Using Ai Abacus’ chemistry metrics, the comparison between the attacking players from December to February highlights the impact the appointment of Johnson has had on the relationships of McGeady and his teammates.

A change of ownership

There is no doubt Sunderland are one of a few high profile clubs, along with the likes of Leeds United, to have dropped down the leagues, but with announcement of a successful takeover bid, Sunderland will be looking to follow the Whites in moving back up the leagues. The fan base has undoubtedly been one of the most consistent parts of the club amongst a period of uncertainty, now coupled with an experienced Sporting Director and a highly regarded manager, the Black Cats will hope the takeover will be a vital step in moving back up the leagues.

The takeover has only just been approved by the EFL with Kyril Louis-Dreyfuss, Son of Robert, former CEO of Adidas and majority stakeholder of Olympique Marseille, purchasing the club with the hope of restoring Sunderland’s former glory. Louis-Dreyfuss will be inheriting one of the most valuable squads in League One, but with their points per game averaging at just under 1.5, it would be fair to say that they have disappointed in comparison to the likes of promotion rivals Lincoln, who are outperforming based on their squad value vs points per game.

Future recruitment

From the chart below, it’s clear that Sunderland rely heavily on their more experienced players whilst there’s been little game time for youth/development players. With the majority of the squad in their peak years, the appointment of Speakman might be just what Sunderland need. If Speakman can help develop Sunderland’s youth players in the same way that brought success at Birmingham, this could add some dynamism to an experienced Sunderland side.

With the change of ownership, recruitment will be vital, as will the necessity to get it right. Take a look at our recent blog that analysed the importance of smart decision making in the January Transfer Window. As with many clubs, this January was a relatively quiet one for Sunderland, who made 4 signings in total, 2 of which were loans. The most notable signing was Ross Stewart from Ross County for a fee of around £304,000.

Ross Stewart – New signing analysed

Stewart comes with a decent reputation from the SPFL, but has been unlucky with injury since joining and is yet to make his debut. Using the Ai simulator to predict the likely success of this transfer based on the move in January, Stewart has a consistent score across all three criteria; Playing Style Index, Player Chemistry Index & Cost-Benefit Index. The scores suggest he’s good value for money and should fit into the team well based on his style suitability rating. It will be interesting to see how fits into the team and which new faces may arrive in summer. No doubt Kyril Louis-Dreyfuss will be looking to the future and where he can take his new club, either way it will be worth keeping an eye out for the Black Cats in the seasons to come.