Sunderland are about to embark on their third successive season in English football's third tier. Back-to-back promotion failures leave the Black Cats languishing in the lower leagues. Phil Parkinson failed to lead the club into the play-offs last season, however, automatic promotion is his target this upcoming season. Parkinson cannot afford to make any mistakes, so here is how the ex-Bolton boss can fulfill his ambition on Wearside.
Sunderland have been active in the transfer window, bringing in four players to bolster their ranks.
Aiden O'Brien joined on a free transfer from Milwall and the forward is expected to bring dynamism to a sometimes clunky attack. Former loanee centre-half Bailey Wright joins from Bristol City; a lot is expected of the Australian, who impressed in his short stint last season. Young centre-half Morgan Feeney joins from Everton, meanwhile, goalkeeper Remi Matthews joins from Bolton Wanderers.
Phil Parkinson and the Sunderland recruitment team had bigger plans for the transfer window, however, the EFL salary cap dealt their plans a huge blow. Ex-Peterborough winger Marcus Maddison was a target but is no longer attainable under the new regulations.
To build a promotion-winning squad, Parkinson must shop smarter. There are small hints that a new, smarter recruitment strategy is in place. 22-year-old Kosovan-Swiss defender Arbenit Xhemalji has trained with the club and is expected to sign a contract on Wearside. According to statistic providers, smarterscout, Xhemalji's ground duel success rate is on a high Premier League standard. There are areas of his game to improve, such as his aerial strength, however, he looks to be a shrewd addition.
In order to build a title-winning side, Parkinson needs to add more players of the Xhemalji ilk - younger and higher-value players.
Parkinson's tactics have not adapted much since the start of his Sunderland tenure. The 52-year-old adopts a 3-4-3 formation in possession, reverting to a 5-2-3 out of possession.
Some players benefit from this system, such as young left-back Denver Hume. His role in the side is increasingly important as he is often seen as a key start of attacks. Parkinson's favoured striker, Charlie Wyke, is a traditional target man, therefore, wing-back are expected to cross the ball a lot.
Despite this, it seems Parkinson does not have much of a plan B. Sunderland won just two of their opening 11 League One fixtures when Parkinson first took over. In each game, with confidence in the squad dwindling week-by-week, the manager refused to switch up the system. This lack of adaptability ultimately led to the failure of the 2019/20 season.
It is therefore imperative that Sunderland be more adaptive in games this season. The squad offers plenty of versatility to do so. Aiden O'Brien, Chris Maguire, Luke O'Nien and Elliot Embleton can all play in multiple positions, giving the manager options to change in-game.
Getting the best from Will Grigg
As aforementioned, Phil Parkison prefers to play with a target man. he is rumoured to be interested in Danny Graham making a return to the club. However, big-money signing Will Grigg remains at the club and impressed during pre-season. Grigg could be called upon to be the man to spearhead the club's promotion charge.
Despite recent disappointments, Grigg's record in League One is impeccable. The 29-year old has fired 101 goals in 298 third-tier appearances and was the catalyst in Wigan's two promotion campaigns.
The key to getting the best from Grigg lies in being tactically versatile. Too many times Sunderland's strikers look isolated. With Grigg, this simply cannot be the case. He has neither the stature nor the pace to be alone. Parkinson must get bodies closer to Grigg so he has the link-up play he needs to thrive.
In Lynden Gooch, Chris Maguire and Aiden O'Brien, Sunderland have talented players on the ball who can pick out Grigg. Parkinson should be brave enough to allow his creative players get closer to the centre-forward as the defence appears strong enough to put up a promotion fight.
Jack Ross found out the hard way that a slow start to the season can be the final nail in the coffin following a failed promotion bid. Phil Parkinson needs to find a winning formula quickly in order to keep the fans and board on his side. Three successive seasons in League One is embarrassing for Sunderland - a fourth would be disastrous.