In goal.... JON MCLAUGHLIN!
Robbin Ruiter was, yet again, very comfortable in Checkatrade Trophy action on Tuesday but there’s no real reason to relieve Jon McLaughlin of his duties as first-choice goalkeeper so, unfortunately for the former FC Utrecht stopper, he’ll make way this afternoon to take up a spot on the bench.
With that in mind, I’d like to take the time to commend Ruiter on his performances so far this season. Although action has been limited, he’s looked infinitely more assured this season than he did last - it’s almost as though the adjustment to English life, fully getting over his injury problems and playing his part in a confident side that isn’t constantly under pressure has allowed him to flourish.
It’s a nice, warm feeling to have two very decent goalkeepers to pick from.
Across the back... MATTHEWS, FLANAGAN, BALDWIN & JAMES!
I actually had to deliberate hard over this, because the last three games have taught me a lot about our defence and where I think we’ll be come the end of January.
The win over Barnsley and the draw at Walsall in the cup showed us that our two central defenders probably aren’t very well suited as a pair. That’s no slight on either player, because I think they’re both very good footballers at this level, but their lack of aerial presence has really shown against physical strikers in those two games, and I just wonder whether Jack Ross and the recruitment team are making signing a big, powerful defender a priority during the transfer window.
On Tuesday night, all three central defenders - Alim Ozturk, Glenn Loovens and Jack Bainbridge - did very well, and it certainly will have given Jack Ross something to think about.
There was a debate in the Roker Report Whatsapp group chat over this yesterday, and Rory Fallow said he’d like to see Glenn Loovens come back into the defence - and who could argue? He was excellent against Notts County and looked refreshed having spent a fair bit of time on the sidelines recovering from his injury problems which saw him lose his place in the side. I don’t know whether Jack Ross is thinking along the same lines, but I wouldn’t be shocked if he is.
The two players down the flanks are immediate picks on a weekly basis, and there’s really no threat of them losing their places in the side. Bryan Oviedo has been utilised in attacking positions in recent games, and with good reason - he’s far better further up the pitch than he is at defending, and that’s why he’s struggled to dislodge Reece James from the regular berth at left back in recent months.
In the middle... MAX POWER & GEORGE HONEYMAN!
This is another toughie, and I’m genuinely not sure what Jack Ross will do here.
Luke O’Nien has started the last two games and, if we are being honest, does he deserve to be dropped? I’d say not - so it’ll be interesting to see whether the previously-injured George Honeyman is restored to the side in his place. If he is, it’s probably slightly harsh on the former Wycombe man who, in truth, hasn’t done a lot wrong in order to lose his spot.
Also vying for a place in the starting eleven is Bali Mumba, who was arguably Sunderland’s man of the match on Tuesday night. The 17 year old did very well, albeit at right wing back, and his cameo last Saturday at Walsall was also impressive - a timely reminder that, despite his age, he’s more than good enough to be featuring from the start of games.
We’ve also got Dylan McGeough, who completed the full 90 minutes on Tuesday night to show that he’s back and in contention for a start. If Jack Ross would prefer to play a more routine, defensively solid team today then he might put McGeough alongside Power, but I genuinely have no idea - it’s a hard decision for the Sunderland manager to make.
In behind the striker... GOOCH, MAGUIRE & MCGEADY!
Sunderland are at their best when this trio are together on the pitch, and with Chris Maguire now fit enough to start I suspect that he’ll come back in to the team this afternoon.
Lynden Gooch and Aiden McGeady were out of the squad completely on Tuesday as Jack Ross took the opportunity to rest them for this one, a huge game when you consider how busy the rest of December is for Sunderland.
Accrington are in poor form and are conceding goals at an alarming rate, so ensuring we take the game to them and press high from the off will be vital if we are to run out as victors.
Duncan Watmore won’t be in the squad today, as confirmed by Jack Ross, so he’ll drop out but may feature on Tuesday in the FA Cup replay with Walsall at the Stadium of Light.
Up front... JOSH MAJA!
He was quiet again at Walsall but in Josh Maja we have our best chance of scoring goals, and he absolutely has to start in this one - particularly since Jerome Sinclair struggled to impress with his performance on Tuesday night.
The importance will be in getting the ball into his feet around their box - he’s absolutely deadly from that situation, so if we want to get the best from him we have to play to his strengths.
I know that sounds so simple, but often Maja finds himself isolated and restricted because we do the exact opposite of playing to his strengths - expecting him to be able to challenge and tussle with defenders when he’s got his back to goal simply does not work.
The fact that Chris Maguire is fit is of benefit here, though, as Maja plays his best football when Maguire is in behind him and occupying defenders with the ball at his feet.