21 December 2021

Sunderland's manager tries to talk trash, gets taken out with it.

16 May 2017: Arsenal 2-0 Sunderland. It's been a while.
When asked before the draw for this week's League Cup clashes, Sunderland manager Lee Johnson said, “I’d love to have Arsenal away, or Tottenham away if not that. And then we’ll wait for the really big guns when it’s two legs.” It was, shall we say, not among the smartest claims made in recent memory as the League One side look ahead to facing a Premier League club for the first time this season. In fact, this is the first time that Sunderland will face a top-flight club since losing away to Everton in the third round of the League Cup back in September 2017, one year after being relegated from the Prem. Their decline has been striking and, to some, saddening. Perhaps someone should make a documentary about their fall from grace. 
To be fair, Sunderland have at least gone one better than that 2017 foray, making it all the way to the heady heights of the League Cup quarterfinal, so Mr. Johnson's exuberant confidence is understandable. This is, after all, the side that is clobbering League One opponents left and right, good enough to sit [checks notes] third in the League behind Rotherham and Wigan, the latter of which was Prem-worthy as recently as the 2012-13 season. Still, we should be cautious not to underestimate our visitors. After all, in the only head-to-head comparison I can make, Sunderland beat Lincoln City 2-1. We beat Lincoln City in the 2017 FA Cup semifinal 5-0. This suggests that Sunderland are at least—help me with my maths here—better than Lincoln City, who currently sit 19th? Sorry to have gotten so abstract and technical just then.

Anyway, having really stepped in it and then insert that same foot squarely in his mouth, Johnson tried to backpedal, and quite gamely at that. Having perhaps realized that it is ill-advised at the best of times to free motivation to a superior side, and one with its tail up at that after scoring nine goals in three consecutive wins against opponents currently in the Prem, Johnson demurred: "All I can say is I have the utmost respect for players, staff and the football clubI can assure you I’ve got 100 per cent full respect because the first part of the question was a genuine answer in terms of they are the two clubs that I actually wanted to play because I haven’t played there and I haven’t managed there." This comes across as more than bit mealy-mouthed, considering that Johnson also hasn't played for or managed Man City, Man U, Everton, Brentford, Stoke, or Newcastle...but he did come through the Arsenal academy until age 17. Perhaps this slipped his mind in the excitement of having bested Wigan just days before the draw? Hm.

Whatever the case may be, we've drawn the lowest side available at this late stage, but we should have enough quality in the squad to rest key players, especially with the congested December schedule. Rotation should give the likes of Pépé and Balogun out there with someone like Salah Oulad given a chance. Behind them, Maitland-Niles and Lokonga should be able to control the midfield in front of a back four of Tavares, Holding, Chambers, and Soares, with Leno. That seems like enough of a mix of senior players and youth to stay fresh and still advance. If nothing else, we can't really let the likes of Lee Johnson get away with a bit of what he ended up calling "dad banter". Looking further down the road, without looking past the opponent in front of us, it might be nice to see us claim this silverware. There are, of course, others who would stand in our way. Let's first see of Sunderland, all the better for them to focus on promotion to the Championship next year.