Jack Ross made two changes from the side which ran out 2-0 winners away at Shrewsbury at the weekend, with Lynden Gooch and George Honeyman deservedly returning to the side for Aiden McGeady and injured top-scorer Josh Maja.
The Lads lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, and for more direct analysis on this check out our recent edition of Talking Tactics. It is clear Ross wanted to make as few changes as possible, but Maja’s ankle injury forced his hand, alongside the impact of the aforementioned pair after coming off the bench to aplomb at the New Meadow.
Gooch was particularly explosive as an impact sub, and continued that on Tuesday night - he truly was a thorn in Rovers’ side all night. Honeyman was practically anonymous in the first half, but came alive in the second. Despite always working hard and screening/cutting passing lanes very well as usual, it took time for him to impact the game in an attacking sense, but he was truly vital late on - as the Lads battled well for just their third clean sheet of the season.
In all honesty, I’d have liked to see Luke O’Nien pick up his first start since opening day, and in his preferred position behind blunt object and outlet supreme Jerome Sinclair. O’Nien reminds me a little of a young Kevin Nolan (apologies for the comparison to him), with his unexpected physicality and keen eye for goal - and he is irrevocably an attacking midfielder.
He was Wycombe’s best player for the past two seasons as an attacking midfielder who effectively worked in tandem with brick wall Adebayo Akinfenwa - and I think this could be replicated to some success with Sinclair - but alas Honeyman started and performed better as the game went on.
Verdict: Two changes - and both were right. Gooch has to start if he is fit and Honeyman was vital to combating a very lively and strong home midfield. This game was always going to be won or lost in the middle of the park.
Jack Ross recently claimed in a video interview with the excellent Coaches Voice that he has already been learning a vast lot in the job, especially regarding football south of the border and particularly League One itself.
It’s definitely been a period of learning for me. I took guidance from those that have worked in League One, so I had an understanding of it to a degree but you don’t get a proper feel for it until you’re facing games week in, week out. The challenge has been very different.
I’ve found it very difficult to predict what we’ll face on a weekly basis, not just in systems and shape but sometimes in the level of performance from the opposition has just taken me by surprise.
Probably, I’ve got to understand a bit better about the physicality. I don’t just mean that in terms of stature, I just mean how aggressive teams are, how they press and how they’ll get after the ball
We have definitely changed our style and how we approach games as the season has worn on. Defensively we now sit somewhat deeper and are nowhere near as open as previous, while in possession we are opting for a more direct style - implementing cross-field balls into the channels very effectively.
This is likely not the way Ross wants his Sunderland side to play, and is certainly far from his own footballing philosophy, for lack of a better term. However, the Scot is a pragmatic coach willing to be flexible in order to garner the best results - and as a side we are learning how to deal with League One too. We were far too naive early on, which morphed into the wrong kind of aggression - but that is now more controlled and the Lads are finally learning how to compete physically with players who dwarf themselves.
Tactically, Doncaster is essentially our recent success in microcosm. Jerome Sinclair didn’t really get into any goal scoring positions himself, but his overall play was fantastic. His constant running into the channels provided us a quick and efficient outlet, and his keen crossing ability himself almost cut them open on numerous occasions.
This was the most intriguing game of the season so far. Grant McCann set his side out to attack as they always do - Coppinger and Wilks took up a narrow position just inside each channel, with the explicit aim to overload our inside-half-spaces and support John Marquis (whose own movement and ability to find space is remarkable for a League One striker) at every opportunity.
In the first half we were troubled by their ability to cut our passing lines high up the pitch and counter with pace from advanced positions. This highly limited our 'rest-defence' (referring to how a team’s attacking line-up by the “rest of the players” – mainly those not involved in the attack – assist in defence). As a result, our defensive back line was far too exposed and isolated, resulting in their two one-on-one chances.
Ross countered this by deploying his central midfielders as “deep eights”, explicitly looking to hit their exceedingly high line on the counter. The deeper positioning of Catts and McGeouch gave the Lads an stronger presence in midfield in the second-half making both stable and direct build-up a more viable option.
Additionally, with Donny’s zone-orientations tended towards higher pressing, Blair and Kane were frequently pulled away from their defensive line. In the increased space between the lines, our attacking midfield trio were able to move intelligently inwards to receive and attack the defence directly, isolating the opposition’s full-backs in their own channels. While Sinclair’s tireless running wide was able to be more effective without Blair immediately shutting him down from the front, and stretched their central defensive partnership.
Verdict: Ross made a few tactical tweaks throughout the game to ensure the Lads were on top when it mattered - and in truth the hosts only really challenged us with long pot-shots in the second-half.
Once again, Ross got his changes absolutely bang-on. I’ve always been a huge advocate of Ross’ game management. Whether having to turn a game on its head, or see one out - more often than not he'll get the call right.
They done the latter on Saturday, and the introduction of Luke O'Nien and Aiden McGeady on Tuesday night in Yorkshire carried out the former.
McGeady was introduced late, but was a willing runner and on numerous occasions ran the ball high infield and held onto it when Sinclair and Maguire began to tire - thus relieving pressure on the defence.
Meanwhile, O'Nien is finding form and confidence with another strong cameo in his favoured position. He adds some much needed height and physicality to our rather vertically challenged central options and ably closed down their midfield all afternoon. On the ball he linked up very well with the effervescent Maguire and nearly grabbed himself a second goal in two games with an instinctive finish correctly deemed just offside.
Verdict: Bang on the money. He protected the carded Catts and Gooch while introduced the right personnel to make an immediate impact.
Ross focused heavily on momentum after the game:
We are in a good place, we are on a good run, the belief is growing.
To lose only one game in 14 is good, we keep banging these results out, especially back to back [to back] away games.
If you asked anyone in the dressing room they won’t be concerned about it at the moment, they believe they will get there and sooner rather than later if they keep doing the things they are doing at the moment.
Any team that is successful, I mean even the best teams, often only the real flashy performances are remembered, the gritty ones are usually forgotten about but the reality is there will be a lot of them along the way to win a title.
When you create that mentality it is a massive thing, the belief is growing that they won’t get beat only because they are doing the right things.
It is growing, it was evident against Doncaster because we knew it would be a tough game.
We spoke pre-season about making winning League One the most important thing you can do in your career.
I have players that have done more than that and might go on to do more than that but for the here and now that has to be the case.
The players are enjoying winning, the challenge that faces them every away game and home games too. They are responding to it. It is a happy group in there, they are loving the feeling of winning games, and in that manner.
The Scot sounds like someone who is really gearing to psychologically prepare the players for a promotion push, and take advantage of our current snowballing momentum and high spirits. He focuses heavily on the mental side of the game a lot in his press conferences, and this was the perfect atmosphere to remind everyone of our aspirations.
Three wins on the trot is no mean feat, but to do so away from home with an untimely international break when all our rivals played - and grabbed important points - sandwiched between them is a real testament to the whole backroom staff.
The game was a proper stormer, and one you can't help but love. We were under the cosh in sections, the ref seemed against us and they played some of the best football we've faced this season but the Lads stuck to the task with real grit and ground out a massive, hard-fought three points.
Just look no further than the fantastic scenes at the end to see a group of Sunderland players and fanbase properly united and connected for the first time in a decade.
Verdict: Ross has smartly took his chance to refocus the Lads’ and Red & White Army’s mentality at a crucial juncture in the season.