Despite not hitting their top gear in recent weeks, Sunderland have undoubtedly been effective. A run of three draws, a defeat and only a solitary win in September has been turned around, as seven points have been secured from our last three games - and six of those have come away from home in our last two matches. Jack Ross has highlighted the positives during his recent press conferences, yet there is clearly room for improvement.
Ross has tinkered with his formation and personnel throughout the opening third of the season. Injuries and suspensions have played their part as key players have missed games but, to the credit of those on the fringes of our squad, others have stepped in and taken their opportunities - the likes of Tom Flanagan and Jerome Sinclair, for example, have taken their chances, and Sunderland look like a side with quality in depth.
The quality of Jack Ross’ squad will be tested again tonight when the Lads travel to Doncaster to take on another side that are flying high in the play-off places. Recent results may favour Sunderland slightly, but Rovers have been in good form at home and will provide one of the sternest tests that the red and white army have faced so far this season.
The state of play...
Sunderland’s win at Shrewsbury lifted us up to third in League One on Saturday. Peterborough lost at home to Accrington Stanley, meaning the gap to second is now just a single point. Of course, that victory put Accrington level on points with Sunderland and fourth by virtue of goal difference, but we have a game in hand on both sides.
Doncaster - along with their Yorkshire neighbours Barnsley - are a point further behind. Barnsley have fifth spot on goal difference and have also played a game less. However, both Yorkshire sides failed to win on Saturday, allowing Sunderland to climb two places. Barnsley lost 2-0 at home to Charlton, whilst Gillingham left the Keepmoat Stadium with a point after a thrilling 3-3 draw. In fact, it could have been a lot worse for Rovers, after Max Ehmer put the Gills back into the lead with two minutes left of normal time. An injury time equaliser from Paul Taylor salvaged a point for the home side.
Tonight Peterborough are at home against Fleetwood, and will very much be looking over their shoulders at our recent run. Behind us, Accrington travel to Luton whilst Shrewsbury host Barnsley.
A win tonight could put Sunderland into those automatic promotion spots and perhaps open a slight gap on the chasing pack.
Doncaster and Sunderland have only met twice in League competition. Unsurprisingly, that was during our only previous foray into the third tier of English football.
Doncaster Rovers played host to Denis Smith’s side early in the season, on August 29th, 1987. Our first ever trip to Doncaster saw Sunderland run out 2-0 winners in front of a mere 2,740 fans. In the return leg, at Roker Park on New Year’s Day, Sunderland completed the double over the Yorkshire side with a 3-1 win, watched by a crowd approaching 20,000.
The two sides have met twice in cup competition. The first was in a FA cup-tie way back in 1954, where Doncaster triumphed 2-0, and the second was in last season’s Checkatrade Trophy, where Rovers beat our U23 side 1-0 at home.
The Gaffer says...
The game was tough on Saturday; their home record prior to Saturday was very good and the game reflected how well they’ve done at home. I think we were always going to show moments of quality in the game as long as we gave ourselves a platform to go and win it. Obviously, we did that at the weekend.
There is that argument to say that we haven’t been absolutely fantastic in any game. There have been games where we’ve been good and there’s parts of games where we’ve been good. So, if you break down aspects of our record this season, the number of games we’ve lost, obviously only one. The wins we’ve had, the number of goals we’ve scored, we’ve scored in every game. Even defensively, I’ve sat here often enough and got asked about clean sheets and yet, despite only two, I think we’ve got the fourth best defence in the league.
We speak often enough about what you need to achieve over the course of a season, points wise. About two points a game will get you pretty close to either achieving promotion or winning the league, although a little bit more than that to win the league, but it will still get you very close. We’re bang on track for that and we want to nudge that up.
[Doncaster are] a team that’s obviously had a good season to date, consistently good, remained in the top five or six positions over the course of the season. John and James watched them earlier on in the season and were really impressed and everything I’ve seen of them, I think they play in a really positive manner in terms of how they pass the ball.
Maybe that’s good for us tomorrow because everything I’ve seen of Grant and his team, has been a team that tries to go and play football. I think the stadium and the environment will be one that we will enjoy tomorrow as well.
I expect a difficult game against a team that to be where they are after 13 games, they can only be a good side.
Ross spoke of the impact that George Honeyman, Luke O’Nien and Lynden Gooch had on Saturday, coming of the bench to secure the win. He also mentioned how Josh Maja has been carrying an ankle injury for past few games.
Tonight, there is an argument that our top scorer may be rested in order to help his ankle recover for the weekend. Three games in a week, especially after struggling at Shrewsbury, may be asking a lot of the teenager. Jerome Sinclair has eased his way into the Sunderland side and is ready to lead the line. Similarly, Aiden McGeady has played more minutes since his return to the side after four months out than perhaps even Ross expected. Allowing the Irishman to rest may not be a bad call.
That would allow both Lynden Gooch - who had a loan spell at Doncaster in 2016 - and Honeyman to start tonight. Gooch, perhaps from the right, would bring that direct approach that Ross has spoken so positively about, whilst Honeyman would allow Sunderland to drop into a midfield three far easier when out of possession.
There is an argument the team plays better when Honeyman and Max Power are sitting in the middle of the park as Jack Baldwin, in particular, can play out from the back. With an attacking front four, Sunderland have been prone to playing more direct and this has coincided with some criticism of Baldwin’s form. Against a top side, especially in their own back yard, playing a possession-based game could suit us better.
Doncaster recovered from going 2-0 down and again at 3-2 to salvage a point against Gillingham at the weekend. The players have been speaking of this ruthless edge to their game as a sign of their development under Grant McCann. The former Peterborough gaffer joined Rovers in the summer and immediately appointed former Sunderland coach Cliff Byrne as his assistant - and they have targeted home form as the key to having a good season.
Rovers have played at home seven times, winning three, drawing three and losing only once. However, October has seen Fleetwood put four past Donny and Gillingham three, leaving them with only one point at home, and only four from their last four games.
Whilst McCann will have one or two missing tonight, midfielder Ben Whiteman is one Rovers player clearly looking forward to the game:
They are a good team and were in the Premier League not too long ago, they’ve had difficulties off the pitch but their fans are sticking by them.
We always look forward to playing at home no matter who we’re up against, it’s an enjoyable place to play your football especially when we’re winning games.
Everyone is coming into work with a smile on their face, so the mood we’re in we want to go into every game and take the three points on offer.
Where Can I Catch The Game?
It’s yet another away-day sell-out for Sunderland fans, with an estimated 4,000 travelling to Yorkshire this evening.
For those unable to attend, audio commentary will be provided by Nick Barnes from around 7pm on both BBC Newcastle and the club website.
The game is also available via a range of Match Pass streams for both domestic and international supporters. Full details can be found on SAFC.com.
We’ll also be providing live commentary via our Twitter page and, after the game, there’ll be a match report and player ratings article on the site - so keep an eye out for that.