LEE JOHNSON has performed a number of different roles in the last three weeks. He has been medic, social worker and internet fitness instructor as Sunderland have wrestled with the impact of the coronavirus outbreak that shut the club down over Christmas, but after Saturday’s return to action at Northampton Town, the recently-appointed 39-year-old can start concentrating on his day job again. From now on, Johnson reverts to being a football manager tasked with the job of guiding Sunderland to promotion.

He cannot ignore Covid entirely. There did not appear to be any obvious after-effects from the virus on display at Sixfields at the weekend, but the fact that eight members of Sunderland’s starting XI had tested positive in the previous few weeks underlines the gravity of the recent outbreak. Each and every member of the squad will have to be monitored closely.

For Johnson, though, the next few weeks will chiefly be about reshaping his squad into a unit capable of stringing together the kind of winning sequence that will now be required to reignite a promotion push. As he has accepted from the outset, it will not be easy. “You don’t get a job in exceptional circumstances in terms of being top of the league or anything like that,” he said at the weekend. “There’s obviously stuff to do.”

Enhancing his side’s attacking threat has to be the priority, with Saturday’s stalemate showcasing many of the flaws that have been apparent all season, if not for the entire duration of Sunderland’s time in the third tier.

In the game before his side’s enforced lockdown, Johnson watched his players tear apart a Lincoln side who wanted to play on the front foot. At Sincil Bank, Sunderland were rampant on the counter-attack.

Saturday’s game was different, instead resembling so many of the club’s frustrating afternoons at the Stadium of Light since they dropped into League One. Northampton were not really interested in engaging Sunderland high up the field. They weren’t particularly bothered about attacking at all if truth be told, instead being content to cede possession as long as they could maintain a rigid defensive shape behind the ball.

Sunderland’s players were challenged to break down a well-drilled, physically-imposing backline, and not for the first time this season, they failed. Charlie Wyke sent a free header flying wide of the target in the opening ten minutes and stabbed another opportunity over the crossbar late on when the Northampton defence failed to deal with a corner, but given their dominance of possession, the Black Cats failure to seriously test the Cobblers’ backline was bitterly disappointing.

It was nothing we had not seen before, with a lack of pace in the final third meaning no one was able to run behind the Northampton defence. Everything was played in front of the opposition, and Sunderland’s midfield trio of Grant Leadbitter, Max Power and Josh Scowen once again looked like a unit devoid of creativity or flair. None of the trio were especially keen to burst into the penalty area or break beyond Wyke, and a result, the Black Cats’ patient attacking moves tended to break down long before they were able to penetrate the Northampton box.

Elliot Embleton might be able to add some midfield trickery once he is up to full speed, and Sunderland undoubtedly missed the thrusting runs of the injured Denver Hume down the left-hand side. Already, though, it looks as though Johnson will have to delve into the transfer market this month to address his side’s attacking inadequacies.

“I feel like we needed to continue the form we showed at Lincoln,” said Johnson. “The team we played (at Northampton), bar one, was the same, and at that point you’re thinking, ‘Right, there’s something to build on’.

“In fairness, there’s been a lot that’s gone on in between. You can’t have excuses though. We know what we have to improve on, and we can do that either by coaching or recruiting.”

The big positive for Johnson came at the other end of the field, where Sunderland’s defensive display represented a return to the kind of resolve and resilience that was the bedrock of their strong start to the season under Phil Parkinson.

Bailey Wright and Tom Flanagan were excellent at the heart of defence, effortlessly dealing with Northampton’s physical threat and refusing to be flustered by the dreadful playing surface that made life difficult for both sides.

Dion Sanderson, pressed into service as an emergency left-back in the absence of both Hume and Callum McFadzean, who is the player Johnson described as having a Covid “double dip”, was equally assured in terms of his defensive performance. His need to check back onto his right foot hampered Sunderland’s attacking efforts on occasion, but as a youngster forced to play out of position, he can be content with his afternoon’s work.

“The defenders had to cope with a lot of direct balls,” said Johnson. “If you don’t cope, you get bullied, and they definitely didn’t get bullied. I felt very comfortable in the defensive set-up, and that is going to be important.”