“We firmly believe in keeping clean sheets first": Sunderland's steel defence turning them into promotion favourites
SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 26: Sunderland manager Phil Parkinson during the Sky Bet League One match between Sunderland and Peterborough United at Stadium of Light on September 26, 2020 in Sunderland, England. (Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images )

Sunderland are in their third campaign in League One. Finally, they now look like a side that are capable of winning the division. 

After two seasons of naivety, overconfidence and, ultimately, failure, The Black Cats now seem in a position to return to the Championship

Phil Parkinson joined the club a year ago this week and, barring an underwhelming beginning, his reign has seen vast improvements. The defensive aspect of the team, in particular, has made Sunderland extremely difficult to beat. 

  • An excellent start

Sunderland are yet to concede from open play this season. The one goal they did concede was in the third minute of the opening game, a penalty against Bristol Rovers

The back three of Jordan Willis, Bailey Wright and Tom Flanagan has been in sync and extremely organised. In recent games, Flanagan and Willis have been out, leaving wing-backs to slot in at centre-back. Still, the commanding Wright has rallied the defence to still keep clean sheets.

Assistant manager Steve Parkin reacted to the 1-0 win over Crewe Alexandra on Tuesday by commenting on the solid defensive work. 

"The key thing is that we have lots of defenders’ meetings and watch lots of videos on the opposition," Parkin told the club's official website.

"Clean sheets don’t just happen, they come with a lot of hard work and dedication from the players and everybody at the club."

Some have been quick to dismiss Sunderland's style under the current management as boring or too defensive-minded, and this is something that Parkin won't shy away from: 

“We firmly believe in keeping clean sheets first and foremost, and we've got a group who really buy into that.

“You can't win every game comfortably and sometimes it's about seeing it through.”

Sunderland have admirably conceded the least goals in England this season and they will hope to keep their excellent resilience going. 

They may not be the prettiest side to watch; but, after years of being in the wilderness, Sunderland finally have an identity and are sticking to it. They should not be ashamed of being a solid defensive unit, especially if it means winning games.

  • Defensive reinforcements

Sunderland's defensive record is even more impressive when you consider that they have been down to the bare-bones in terms of numbers.

New recruits Morgan Feeney and Arbenit Xhemajli have been ruled out long term, whilst Willis and Flanagan picked up knocks and suspensions. 

As a result of this, the club dipped into the transfer market to bring in two new players over the last week. 

Firstly, Dion Sanderson joined on deadline day from Wolves. The 20-year-old centre-back joins on a season-long loan and will fill in for the long term injured players. 

Sanderson may feature at the weekend against Portsmouth, with the fitness of Willis still ambiguous. 

Secondly, Sunderland announced the signing of Callum McFadzean yesterday. The 26-year old left wing-back joins on a free transfer after he left Plymouth Argyle at the end of last season and has penned a one-year deal. 

McFadzean provides much-needed cover for Denver Hume, who has impressed so far this season going forward. Previously, the academy graduate was the only player who could play in that position. 

Phil Parkinson will now hope he has the final piece of his jigsaw complete and his Sunderland side can make a real push for promotion at the third time of asking.