Goalkeeper: Jon McLaughlin
Sunderland’s culture and fortunes have changed dramatically since last season. Gone are the owners and execs that saw the club as a burden; gone are the managers who had their hands tied and abilities questioned; gone is the calamity of having three goalkeepers of equal ineptness on our books.
Instead, we have owners who are restoring the pride of the club, a manager who’s humble demeanour belies a hightly competitive and intelligent coach, and a goalkeeper who can actually keep the ball out of the net.
Jon McLaughlin has been a huge acquisition - Jack Ross said he would start the rebuilding job with a strong keeper and he has been true to his word. The Scotland international has been a rock, both as last line of defence and organising those ahead of him. The run of clean sheets has been testament to the relationships that have emerged and McLaughlin has been central to that run.
Defence: Matthews, Flanagan, Baldwin, James
A consistent defence has long been the mantra of successful coaches the length and breadth of the country. Sam Allardyce was desperate to find a solution to Sunderland’s penchant for conceding and Jack Ross is another manager who understands the value of how clean sheets breed confidence and secure victories.
Having settled on a back-four, Ross has not been let down. Knowing Sunderland are more than capable of scoring, the defence have made it their mission to keep the opposition at bay. Clean sheets ensued and, when goals have been conceded, the group have come back stronger.
Matthews and James will both be keen to secure new deals on Wearside and will be using their relationship with centre-halves Flanagan and Baldwin as the platform to impress Ross. Whilst the defence remains as sturdy as it has appeared in recent weeks, Ross will be more than happy to keep the quartet together.
Defensive Midfield: Power & Honeyman
Max Power has made his way back into the Sunderland squad following his suspension and has had a big impact when he’s taken to the field in recent weeks. His ability to pick a pass and drive the team on has been a key component in Sunderland’s success this season.
With Lee Cattermole absent in recent weeks and Dylan McGeough now carrying a knock, the time may be right for Power to start once more.
Alongside him, George Honeyman will be a willing partner. Having his own range of passing and the energy that comes from being the club captain, Honeyman has impressed in a deeper role lately. Much is made of his size and frame, but the youngster has played well in the engine room and the hope is his partnership with Power can be as effective as that which he established with McGeough this month.
Attacking Midfield: Maguire, Gooch & McGeady
Chris Maguire was one of a trio that Jack Ross highlighted this week as carrying injuries. If the Scot can throw off the niggle and take his place today, it will be a huge boost for the team. Seeking a successive award for Goal of the Month, Maguire has been an inspiration to Sunderland this season and complements his fellow forwards.
Alongside him, Lynden Gooch has the direct style to cause any defence problems. His eye for creating as well as scoring goals has been a real positive for Ross this campaign and the hope is the American will commit his future to Wearside in the not-too-distant future.
Aiden McGeady has become a key figure since his return form injury. His skill, goalscoring ability and depth of experience make him one of the best midfielders in the league. With January looming, it is hoped that Sunderland can retain his services as we seek an instant return to the Championship.
Striker: Josh Maja
Josh Maja may well have been disappointed at not starting against Wycombe last week, particularly after his goalscoring cameo against Morecambe in the previous game. Yet Ross spoke of his faith in his players and how those starting games had earned the right, so Maja has had to be patient since recovering from injury.
However, with concerns over Jerome Sinclair’s fitness this week, Maja will be pushing to start today. The rate at which the teenager has achieved double-figures for the season shows he is Sunderland’s chief threat in front of goal.
Maja’s all-round game has improved significantly as the campaign has progressed and the teenager is emerging as a much sought-after prospect.
Whilst Sunderland are keen and confident the former Fulham player will remain on Wearside for the foreseeable future, the player himself can do his growing reputation no damage by continuing to fire Sunderland towards the summit of League One.