Sunderland made two changes to the side that ran out two-nil winners at Shrewsbury on Saturday. Unsurprisingly it was two of the substitutes from that game which came into the side, as Lynden Gooch and George Honeyman returned to the starting eleven at the expense of Aiden McGeady and Josh Maja - who missed out entirely due to an ankle injury.
These changes meant Sunderland went to a more standard 4-2-3-1 formation. Jon McLaughlin continued his fine form in goal as the back four of Adam Matthews, Tom Flanagan, Jack Baldwin and Reece James was also unchanged. Lee Cattermole and Dylan McGeouch continued their partnership in midfield, behind the attacking trio of Lynden Gooch, George Honeyman and Chris Maguire. Jerome Sinclair took up the lone striker role in Maja’s absence.
Doncaster made just the one change from the side that starting their last game, a three-all draw at home to Gillingham on Saturday afternoon, with Joe Wright coming in for Tom Anderson.
The home side lined up in a 4-3-3 formation - Marko Marosi started in goal, behind a back four of Niall Mason, Joe Wright, captain Andy Butler and Danny Andrew. Ben Whiteman started as the deepest of the midfield trio, alongside Matty Blair and Herbie Kane. Mallik Wilks and James Coppinger offered support from wide to John Marquis.
Sunderland’s forwards are equal parts style and substance
Sunderland were forced to battle hard for three points at the Keepmoat Stadium and the attitude of the side was evident in the performance of the front four - Sinclair, Maguire, Honeyman and Gooch - who all put in hardworking performances from the first minute until the last.
High work rate us becoming the norm for Jack Ross’ men, but Sunderland’s forwards showed they aren’t just about hard work and also possess sufficient quality with the ball - something which was evident in the goal.
Chris Maguire’s winner involved three of Sunderland’s front four as first Sinclair dropped deep to hold the ball up before hitting a cross field ball to Lynden Gooch wide on the right hand side. The American cut inside and hit a left-footed show off the inside of the post, the ball deflected to Matthews to square it for Chris Maguire who finished from point-blank range.
Sinclair is a vastly different striker to the man he replaced, Josh Maja, but he is brilliant at being a handful for opposition defenders, and subsequently creating space for Sunderland’s attacking triumvirate behind him.
This attacking trio are not just impressive individual players, but also complement each other immensely. Lynden Gooch provides direct running with the ball, George Honeyman tidy passing and Chris Maguire is both a creative and a goalscoring threat. But the thing that all three have in common is their work rate off the ball which means that even when they have an off day, they don’t make Sunderland any weaker defensively.
Dylan McGeouch starting to find his feet
Whilst many will have left the game applauding the dominant performances of Sunderland’s centre halves when seeing out the game, they were protected brilliantly by Dylan McGeouch in the middle of the park.
It would be fair to say that the Scotland international has gotten off to a slow start since his move from Hibs in the summer, but in the last couple of games he has shown some of the composure on the ball that we all expected after hearing rave reviews from fans of his former club.
Despite his game being more about when Sunderland have the ball, McGeouch’s role off the ball was also evident against Grant McCann’s side. The deep lying midfielder screened the back four well and was often in the right place at the right time to make interceptions and pick up loose balls in the middle of the pitch.
Once he won the ball back, McGeouch also used his composure on the ball to ensure that - unlike on Saturday - Sunderland didn’t give the ball straight back to the home side, and this was the main difference between Sunderland’s last two performances.
Adam Matthews looks more comfortable in a back four
McGeouch is not the only player who has been showing signs of improvement over the last few games, as Adam Matthews’ performances have improved dramatically since resuming a more conventional right back role - after starting the season as a right-sided centre back.
What impressed me the most in the Welshman’s display last night was the confidence and composure he displayed on the ball, something which is vital if Sunderland are going to dominate games at this level. Matthews was happy to take on his man deep in his own half, something which not only means Sunderland don’t turn over possession but also opens the game up in more attacking areas - if your right back can take a player out of the game there suddenly becomes much more space for your forwards to work in.
Matthews’ composure on the ball is something which Reece James could improve on at left back. Whilst James has impressed many with his displays since coming into the side, too often the former Wigan man appears to panic on the ball and resorts to kicking a hopeful ball up the left channel.
If James could improve this part of his game, he would be a complete full back for this level, and it would help Sunderland to keep possession, and control the game.
Whilst Jack Ross’ tactics have been, Burton aside, almost spot on since taking over in the summer, the most important change has been in mentality.
This season, Sunderland are a team full of Brendan Rodgers’ favourite attribute - character! It’s something which has been lacking in recent seasons, but has been demonstrated in each of our last three victories.
It also hasn’t gone unnoticed that Sunderland have started keeping clean sheets and, with two in two on that front and a goalkeeper in fine form, there’s no reason why this winning run can’t go on a little longer.