Grant Leadbitter was Lee Johnson’s true Sunderland hero in the Black Cats’ 4-0 rout of Lincoln City at the LNER Stadium on Saturday.
Johnson saw his Stadium of Light natives command proceedings to move within touching distance of the League One play-pff positions, with goals from Leadbitter, Jack Diamond and a brace from Charlie Wyke enough to close the gap to just two points and with a game in hand.
Leadbitter struck the visitor’s first of the match when he converted from the spot by sending Alex Palmer the wrong way after a foul by Jorge Grant on Diamond, and continued to set the tone as he brought a commanding presence to the engine room.
Leadbitter has been praised throughout the 2020/21 season for his efforts in bringing an experienced voice to the core of Sunderland’s midfield, having now started 14 of the Black Cats’ opening 16 games and missed just eight minutes when he has featured.
The Sunderland Echo’s Mark Donnelly has been among Leadbitter’s largest advocates, having lauded the 34-year-old for being the “League One cheat code” Sunderland supporters hoped he would become when brought to the club as a free agent last year.
“He’s been fantastic. He’s kind of becoming that League One cheat code that everyone hoped he would be when he signed,” Donnelly said on The Roar Podcast.
“He just looks a class above in the centre of midfield. Not only the balls he’s trying, but the balls he’s pulling off in terms of switching the play, in terms of driving Sunderland forward, he’s just going about his business, he makes it look effortless.
“If we were sat here six weeks ago and said that not only would Grant Leadbitter be back in the team, but he’d be arguably the star man, you probably would’ve been a little bit surprised. He’s come back, he’s been excellent, he’s just gone about his business – and he’s made that place his own now.”
Leadbitter was once again a class above his midfield teammates as Sunderland beat Lincoln on Saturday, registering a game-high 97 touches – 22 more than any player for either side – while completing 62 of his 76 attempted passes, also game-high numbers, per SofaScore.
Johnson would have been left astonished by Leadbitter’s passing range at the LNER Stadium as he effortlessly played possession across the pitch, with 12 of his 18 attempted long balls finding teammates.
The Black Cats product may even have found the back of the net more often on another day, having found the target with each of his three shots on Palmer’s goal, matching his offensive threat with an imperious presence in front of the back four.
Leadbitter won possession with three tackles, made three interceptions, was never dribbled past and won five of his nine ground duels, while conceding just two fouls, being fouled once and completing his only attempted dribble of the match.
Wyke will rightly take much of the acclaim with his brace moving the 28-year-old onto 12 goals in 15 League One games for the season, but Leadbitter was Johnson’s real hero.