The final game of the 2023/24 Championship campaign is almost upon us. After 45 games of highs and lows, Sunderland take on Sheffield Wednesday with nothing to play for. A campaign that promised so much, yet underdelivered. 

The Owls need one point to secure their Championship status after a remarkable revival under German head coach Danny Rohl. Wednesday's form since his appointment has been nothing short of a miracle, after taking over the newly promoted outfit -who had just two points from their opening ten games - to the brink of survival

At that time, Sunderland were sat in fourth having won six of their opening ten, with one draw and three losses to their name. The Black Cats had thrashed Xisco Munoz's side 3-0 at Hillsborough in a comfortable win for Tony Mowbray's side, in the Spaniard's penultimate game in charge.

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The Wearsiders would back that result up with a 2-0 win over Watford, before a three game losing streak against Middlesbrough, Stoke City and Leicester City. Their first real wobble of the campaign and one that saw them drop down to tenth place.

Mowbray's men weren't as swashbuckling as they had been in the previous play-off campaign, but it's fair to say that the alarm bells weren't ringing as loud as they have been in the latter stages in the campaign.

As Rohl went about his Owl renaissance, Sunderland went into self destruct. Mowbray's departure and the mess that would follow needs no revisiting.

But what does make for interesting reading are the statistics behind the Black Cats' campaign.

We Are Sunderland: Sunderland's expected goals and expected goals against trendline (on a rolling five game average) for the 2023/24 Championship campaign.Sunderland's expected goals and expected goals against trendline (on a rolling five game average) for the 2023/24 Championship campaign. (Image: StatsBomb)As you'll know by now, if you're a long-term subscriber to We Are Sunderland, we've regularly visited Sunderland's trendline for expected goals (xG) and expected goals conceded (xG conceded) as we believe it's a good reference point for what we've seen with our own eyes.

Mowbray was still getting a tune out of his side in the final third, xG exceeding xG conceded, but results weren't necessarily going their way. A degree of misfortune, or the rot setting in? You decide.

What would follow has been more confusing than anyone could have predicted. Even Kristjaan Speakman who said Sunderland were "obsessed with progression and improving, and we felt to meet that we had to make a change," at the time of Mowbray's departure, could not have envisaged a drop off of this size.

He had accumulated a respectable 27 points from 19 games in the Championship as Sunderland sat in ninth place. Michael Beale would pick up 14 points from 33 available to him; Mike Dodds has taken just nine from 33 heading into the final day of the campaign. Had it not been for Mowbray's stint, who knows where Sunderland would have finished.

Of course that's hypothetical. What isn't, is the dramatic downward slope and the relegation form the Black Cats have shown since the start of 2024.

We Are Sunderland: Championship scatter graph showing how Sunderland compare to their second tier rivals.Championship scatter graph showing how Sunderland compare to their second tier rivals. (Image: StatsBomb)What is strange, is that despite Sunderland's mid-season implosion, they still rank among the Championship's top performing sides in terms of xG and xG Conceded. A sign - if it were needed - that stats don't always translate into results.

However, on the flip side of the coin, they would certainly support the claims of interim boss Dodds who feels that fine margins have gone against his side.

"There's also the reality that some of the players haven't performed to the level they did last year, and that is a reality," Dodds said ahead of the trip to Watford last weekend. "That's not finger pointing because we've all got to go away and reflect - that includes me. I've been involved with this team for the last two seasons so I've got some reflection points on why things were better previously than where they are now. The players also have some reflection points as well.

"We all need to reflect on why the season has petered out - I do think we have a really strong core but there is definitely a need for more depth and some help around some of those players. Going back to the question, I think I'd describe it as clunky and there hasn't felt like we've been able to have any real flow. I think there are a number of reasons for that, injuries, suspensions, turnover of managers."

We Are Sunderland: Sunderland interim head coach Mike Dodds.Sunderland interim head coach Mike Dodds. (Image: Ian Horrocks)

It's fair to say all of the factors mentioned above have played a part, but the worrying sign is that all three managers have tried to get a tune out of this current group of players, all three have struggled. It may be harsh to say that about Mowbray given he got the best out of this young group, but even he struggled to get a tune out of their forward line. A debate that'll rage on into the upcoming transfer window.

A number of Sunderland players simply haven't hit the heights of last season, while recruitment this season has been below par. While it's encouraging to see the club invest into off the field activities, most recently in the commercial department, it's important we see a similar investment into the playing squad this summer.

Starting with an ambitious head coach appointment.

As journalists, we're not privy to the day-in, day-out running of a football club but we do get an insight into the general mood around the Academy of Light and into the player's camp. On the whole, there has been a sense of positivity within the walls of Sunderland's training group. But in recent weeks, players have come across increasingly frustrated by results and rightly so.

The Wearsiders need a head coach with a previous of working with young players and developing them, but also a manager who can rebuild bridges between the fans and the club. Fans have every right to be disenchanted with how things have gone on the pitch this season, let alone off the pitch after the Black Cats Bar debacle surrounding derby day.

The club's hierarchy needs to improve channels of communication with supporters, starting with assessing the campaign this summer and explaining the path they want to take the club on. There are so many questions heading into the final day of the season. What is behind their huge drop off? Why have players struggled to hit the same heights as last season?

The biggest one of all, what is the playing identity of the group moving forward? Much of that will be made clearer when a new head coach is appointed this summer, but they can't afford another mistake.

Despite the suggestion Beale's appointment would not impact the style of play severely, it's clear it did. Dodds himself has spoken about needing to do more work on the training ground after taking over interim charge the second time. 

They may slowly have turned a corner in terms of expected goals now outperforming expected goals conceded, but with results still not on their side, there's a growing argument for underperformance this season. 

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If the Owls do defeat Sunderland this weekend, they'll finish just three points behind the Black Cats having struggled against the drop all season. From play-off contenders, to finishing just above the drop. From thumping Southampton at home, to being thrashed by Blackburn Rovers. This season they've been the Championship enigma nobody can explain. 

Speaking after Mowbray's departure, owner Kyril Louis-Dreyfus said: "Central to that approach is a relentless demand for a high performance culture to be implemented throughout the Club and the development of a strong playing identity that you, our loyal supporters, can all be proud of."

It's time Sunderland delivered on that high performance promise.