LEE JOHNSON admits he can sense “a degree of fear” in Sunderland’s attacking play, but over time, the head coach is confident he will be able to bring about an improvement that makes his side much of a threat in the final third.

Sunderland head to AFC Wimbledon this afternoon looking to end a run of three successive league draws that started with a 1-1 result against the same opposition when last month’s Covid outbreak in the Black Cats camp was just starting to take hold.

While Sunderland’s failure to win with what was a cobbled-together line-up that night was understandable, their subsequent inability to beat either Northampton Town or Hull City was more worrying.

Johnson’s side barely created a chance as they failed to score at Sixfields in their last away game, and while he has been working on a few tactical tweaks that should make his side more threatening, the Black Cats boss also accepts there are some psychological scars from the last couple of seasons that also have to be overcome.

“I think there probably is a hangover there,” said Johnson. “I see a lot of fear in our play sometimes, and that’s definitely something I’m trying to reduce. I want to reduce that fear as much as possible.

“I’ve talked about showing my teeth, but really, that’s about bringing out the individual attributes of each player as best as I possibly can. I want to get the players believing in their best. Then, they can bring that to the party.

“I’m a glass half-full type of guy, so I’m seeing the credentials that we can keep clean sheets and we give away minimal chances. When we play the long game over 20, 30, 100 fixtures, then I think we’ll be able to turn the other side of our game, whether that’s through nurturing the players we’ve already got or recruiting to bring players in.”

Johnson has altered the balance of the side since replacing Phil Parkinson, abandoning the five-man defensive shape adopted by his predecessor and restoring the attack-minded Aiden McGeady to the starting line-up.

He has been encouraging his midfield players to play on the front foot and look to break into the opposition’s 18-yard box, and was pleased with the response he received during Tuesday’s Papa John’s Trophy win over Port Vale, albeit against League Two opposition.

“We’re trying to win every match,” he explained. “We’re trying to press high and we’re trying to hustle. We’ve done our best work wide, and we now need to do better work central. I think that was one of the positives in the week in terms of chances created. It could have been four or five and nobody would have argued.

“That’s what we need to do, and that’s an attitude thing. It’s an attitude to play forward, it’s an attitude to play vertical and it’s an attitude to play central. It’s about not always doing your best work in the free spaces.

“We do that very well, which is why we have a lot of control in games, but it’s no good at 0-0. It’s good at 2-0 up because you’ve gained that control, but when the game is even, you need to be able to have a bit more penetration centrally.”

Johnson’s first month on Wearside could hardly have been more truncated, with last month’s Covid outbreak forcing the closure of the Academy of Light training ground for the best part of two weeks.

Slowly but surely, though, the 39-year-old feels he is getting his points across, and is confident performances and results will improve as a result.

“I think the players have total in clarity in the way we want to play now," he said.