An analysis of Phil Parkinson's tough start to life as Sunderland manager

Gabriel Sutton by Gabriel Sutton / 29 November 2019, 07:35

Phil Parkinson has not had the start he hoped for at Sunderland, who have won just two of his first six league games in charge, losing three.

We look at; why results haven’t changed under the new manager, the argument for giving him more time, and the deeper problems at the club.

Why results haven’t changed

Long ball football

One of the main gripes Sunderland had with Parkinson’s predecessor, Jack Ross, was that the team had no discernible playing identity.

They often played long balls from deep, without quite having the personnel to make that sort of strategy work.

Unsuited personnel

Sunderland’s attacking quartet, in Tuesday’s 2-1 home loss to Burton, comprised of Duncan Watmore, Luke O’Nien, Aiden McGeady, and Will Grigg.

None of those players are good in the air, so why would Sunderland play as if they are?

If the club have done any research on Parkinson, they would know that he tends to like his teams to play long to a target man; James Hanson at Bradford then Gary Madine at Bolton.

The Black Cats do not possess a target man – the opinion-dividing Charlie Wyke is the closest thing to that out of the strikers available, but even he has been absent since mid-October.


Why he may deserve more time

44 days

Parkinson has only had 44 days and six league games in charge. 

There have been no opportunities yet to use the transfer window, which gives him little time to understand his current squad let alone scope to shape it.

Part of what has contributed to Sunderland’s decline this decade has been their tendency to change managers quickly and make big commitments to achieve a short-term aim.

Sometimes, they have been successful in achieving the short-term aim – staying in the Premier League – but the problems have subsequently piled up.

What the club really needs is a deeper, more therapeutic re-build in which it sticks to the commitments it makes.

Needs leaders

When we look at Parkinson’s successful Bradford and Bolton’s sides, the one thing that stands out is that they had leaders:

With Bradford, he had Matt Duke, Stephen Darby, James Meredith, Andrew Davies, Gary Jones, Garry Thompson, Hanson, then Tony McMahon and Jon Stead, later Reece Burke.

In Bolton’s 2016-17 promotion-winning squad, there was an experienced goalkeeper in Mark Howard, a vocal centre-back pairing of Mark Beevers and David Wheater, a ferocious midfield rottweiler in Jay Spearing, an industrious target man in Madine, with solid pros like Dean Moxey and Darren Pratley also around the group.

Parkinson appears a calm, collected character, so sometimes he needs people around him who can dish out a rollicking.

That type of leader is not obviously present in this Sunderland squad, which may partially explain the lack of urgency that is evident in some of their games.

Adding a fierce character like Joe Ledley in midfield, as well as an organiser such as James Collins at the back – both players are available on a free – could solve some of the problems.

Record at this level

Parkinson has had eight full seasons as a manager at this level at four different clubs: Colchester, Charlton, Bradford and Bolton.

In that time, his sides have accrued on average 72 points across a whole season, with four top six finishes including two automatic promotions.

Three of the eight seasons came in charge of Colchester, modestly budgeted at this level, while another three came with Bradford immediately after promotion from League Two.

While in theory Bradford should expect to challenge in League One, the club had a cheap ticketing strategy around that time so the budget there was not quite as big as one might expect.

Essentially, Parkinson is a League One specialist, much like Kenny Jackett and Simon Grayson; his record at this level of English football deserves some respect.

Deeper problems

Supporters are unsettled, with justification, that the club is at its lowest ebb for decades and being 11th in the third-tier, for many, is understandable unacceptable.

The club would not be in this position if there was not a wide range of deep-rooted problems.

Part of the issue is that chairman Stewart Donald, although a very successful businessman who has done a lot of excellent work to balance the books, does not necessarily have a football brain – and he has been trusting the wrong people on issues such as recruitment.

The fact Donald, along with director Charlie Methven, are so open and talkative was a huge positive for the club when they first took over, but not quite so much now.

Methven has not been afraid to ask for a more positive backing from supporters.

Some would perceive that as a way of engaging with fans in an encouraging way, unlike board members from previous regimes.

Equally, his words can, rightly or not, be perceived by some as antagonistic blame-shifting, so the re-connection between club and fans that occurred in 2018 has not been wholly retained.


Even at this early stage, the question of whether Parkinson is the right man for Sunderland feels like a valid one for a lot of supporters.

We will not tell fans or the club what to think about Parkinson, but what we will do is offer a suggestion as to how that conclusion should be drawn.

If the club dismisses the 51-year-old purely because they do not like what they are seeing now, then that may be premature.

The current personnel – in terms of physique and leadership among other things - dictates that it cannot produce anything close to the truest, best version of a Parkinson team.

If the club dismisses him because they do not like his approach, regardless of the personnel, that would be a fairer conclusion – although it would raise different questions.

If they add an organiser at the back, a terrier in midfield and a target man with whom the ball will stick, then results could change drastically and the merits of Parkinson’s philosophy may become clearer.

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