Despite losing a two goal lead away at Hibernian on Sunday, Simon Grayson’s opening fixtures as Sunderland manager have been generally positive affairs. Plenty of players given the chance to impress, limited injury concerns and the beginnings of a system which looks a good fit: they’re all causes for cautious optimism.
Speaking after the Hibs game, Grayson was careful in his analysis of the performance, but definitely identified positives which he will hope to build upon:
For 60-70 minutes I thought we were very good. We had a good tempo with the ball and looked solid without it, and we’ve been working on certain things and asking the players to do what we’re trying to implement.
I thought they carried that out well and we scored two good goals, but in the last 25 minutes or so we didn’t play with that tempo and we gave it away cheaply.
But it’s another 45 minutes for the players which is important and it was nice to see some of our international players out on show, and I was pleased with some of the younger players as well.
Grayson’s men will be keen to put Sunday’s result behind them ahead of this evening’s outing - a game they will be keen to use as a platform for the rest of the summer. Grayson has been assertive in his belief that pre-season is about trying different things on the pitch whilst building fitness, and after our draw in Edinburgh he was keen to point that out again:
It’s about getting into good habits and I think we showed a lot of good habits in the first hour playing how I’d like to play, but I still think there is a lot of work to be done.
Grayson has been keen to manage expectations, and despite trying desperately hard to keep that in mind when considering the performances of Josh Maja in recent games, it’s really been difficult not to get a little carried away by the youngster’s recent form.
It was clear to see from the club’s social media coverage in Austria that Maja had struck up a good relationship with teammate Wahbi Khazri - and after the last two games that relationship has brought much optimism. Both players have found the back of the net in the last couple of games, and both have complemented one another well with flashes of quality in their play.
It goes without saying that we have to manage our expectations carefully with regard to the promise of Maja, but it’s hard not to get a little excited when in a desperate situation, whereby the club have no other striking options, a young academy product steps up to the plate and delivers. Simon Grayson has been impressed with the young forward and it wouldn’t come as much of a surprise to see him given another opportunity to impress in today’s game.
Grayson seems to be favouring a formation resembling a 4-3-3, which can evolve into a 4-2-3-1. That deep-lying midfield two caters to the personnel at our disposal with both Darron Gibson and Lee Cattermole looking impressive in their recent outings and Didier Ndong ready to fight for his place, too.
Furthermore, Wahbi Khazri has impressed in an attacking role while Jeremain Lens scored a goal on his return to the squad - though the futures of both those players is still up in the air. Rees Greenwood as well as Maja has shown glimpses of real quality and other youth players have also impressed when given the chance to prove their worth. All positive headaches for the new boss.
That being said, our options in attack are awfully thin, and Grayson must add quality to it in the coming weeks. Some of the defending has at times looked rather poor considering we’ve had a fairly experienced defence in place. Although both are serious concerns, they are both issues than can be remedied ahead of the new campaign.
One positive in the coming weeks may be the effect Maja’s performances could potentially have on fellow youngster Joel Asoro, who has yet to return to the squad after a delayed return to Wearside. Could he up his own game in response to his fellow striker’s impressive form? Asoro seems to be the kind of player keen to talk the talk, but will he be able to consistently walk the walk and claim a place in the Sunderland first team this season?
Predicted XI: Again, presumably it will be a tale of two halves as Grayson gives every player the chance to impress. Expect 22 or more players to be involved.
Score Prediction: I think the Lads are starting to buy into Grayson’s methodologies, and I expect the team to continue to improve as pre-season progresses. Livingston won’t roll over, but I think the team will have a point to prove after the disappointing collapse against Hibernian. I’m going for a 4-0 win to the Wearsiders.