Goalkeeper: Jon McLaughlin
Even with a fully fit squad, the likelihood of starting this regular piece with anyone other than Jon McLaughlin’s name would be unthinkable. Barring injury, the former Hearts keeper has become a firm favourite for all on Wearside and the first name on the teamsheet.
As 2018 begins to draw to an end, it seems a far - and bad - memory of how we began the year. With Jason Steele struggling and Robbin Ruiter inconsistent, Chris Coleman opted to address the problem by bringing in Lee Camp. If we thought 2018 couldn’t be worse than 2017, we were about to find out how wrong we could be.
Yet, here we are, ending the year with spirits lifted. Sunderland sit at the right end of a league table, for the first time in literally years, with a custodian we can once more be proud to call our own.
Here’s to a very happy 2019!
Defence: O’Nien, Flanagan, Baldwin, Oviedo
Luke O’Nien seems to be quickly making a problem spot his own. Adam Matthews has established himself as Sunderland’s regular right-back since Billy Jones’ depature in the summer, but, truth be told, there has been little competition for the place. Donald Love has consistently failed to impress in a Sunderland shirt and is surely destined for pastures new sooner or later. The only other option this season has been to ask young left-back, Denver Hume, to cover the full-back role when the Welshman has been absent.
But now, after arguably two man-of-the-match performances, the former Wycombe midfielder has forced his way into Jack Ross’ thinking in a completely new position. Such is the competition in central midfield, it’s fair to say O’Nien’s chances of a staking a regular starting place have never been better. If the young lad continues to impress on the field as much as he has off it during his time on Wearside, then Matthews may find himself kicking his heels as his contract runs down in 2019.
The central pair of Tom Flanagan and Jack Baldwin are a solid enough League One combination. If Sunderland are to remain as automatic promotion favourites, much will depend on the defence holding firm in the business-end of the season. Jack Ross must be looking beyond Flanagan and Baldwin and worrying a little about the quality that cover either centre-half. With Glenn Loovens now injured, this adds to a problem of strength in depth. Perhaps, with January now mere days away, the opportunity to reinforce the key position will be taken - hopefully with a centre-half already of Championship standard.
On the left hand side of defence it’s a toss up between Reece James and Bryan Oviedo. Both players have the ability to play at a higher level and need to continue to show their quality as we pursue a return to the Championship. Will Ross stick with Oviedo or bring James back in today? Maybe it’s a much-of-a-muchness, regardless of who starts.
Defensive Midfield: McGeouch & Power
It’s been interesting watching Dylan McGeouch’s Sunderland career to date. A big signing, in terms of reputation and a sign of ambition from the new management team, the Scot came as something of a marquee signing for League One. It was Sunderland’s intent to secure a quick return to the Championship and McGeouch was the central spoke to achieve that.
However, injuries and careful man-management have perhaps tempered fans’ opinions of the midfielder. Some compliment him on how he retains possession, keeps the ball moving, gets Sunderland from defence to attack, whilst others have been unimpressed and struggle to see what McGeouch brings to the team.
Jack Ross has said how he will need his full squad and it will be interesting if he rotates his midfield today. With George Honeyman struggling with an ankle injury, McGeouch’s inclusion would be at the expense of either Lee Cattermole or Max Power, but one of them is sure to start.
As with the left-back selection, perhaps it doesn’t matter which one is taken out. Cattermole has looked a little rusty since his return from injury and could benefit from a game out, whilst Max Power has played every game since his red card against Walsall was correctly overturned and could be due a rest.
Personally, I’d take Cattermole out, as Power has consistently achieved a level of performance and plays well alongside McGeouch.
Attacking Midfield: Watmore, Maguire & McGeady
For a long time the attacking four have largely picked themselves both due to form and, perhaps, a lack of realistic options. Jerome Sinclair has offered pace and physical presence at times, but hasn’t been the goal threat to successfully challenge the quartet.
However, Jack Ross now has Duncan Watmore as a realistic option within the squad and the gaffer praised the condition of Charlie Wyke, who returned on Saturday against his former side. Suddenly, Ross has not only options in personnel but opportunities for different formations.
Could Wyke lead the line and Maja play just off him? Could Ross then use McGeady, Gooch, Watmore or Maguire as conventional wide midfielders? Could Watmore or Wyke simply replace Maja as the central striker and rotate the three attacking midfielders behind them?
For today’s game, I suspect Ross will resist the urge to throw Wyke into a starting position and continue to ease him into action from the bench. After all the striker is relatively new to his teammates and Ross may want to keep the successful balance in tact for a little while longer.
Duncan Watmore, though, offers a different option. He is further ahead in his recovery and is known to a number of his teammates already. I suspect he could find himself starting today but, unlike the last game as a striker, Watmore could play from wide in support of Maja. Lynden Gooch may be the one to make way and have a rest, but really any of the three could be taken out today.
Striker: Josh Maja
The central role may still be Josh Maja’s to lose. Despite now having the fiercest competition for his place since his emergence as a strong League One striker, Maja will know both Charlie Wyke and Duncan Watmore are being managed and eased back into competitive action. If the youngster, who has just turned 20, continues to work hard and find the net, Jack Ross will find it difficult to justify his omission from the side.
As we have already said, Maja could benefit from playing alongside Wyke for example, and that may well be the case on a future occasion. But as January draws near and, potentially, a decision on his future being realised, in terms of either signing a new contract or the club being made to consider a reasonable offer for his services, Josh Maja can only focus on the next game and making sure he continues his fine form in a Sunderland shirt.