Sunderland again lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with a side which is beginning to pick itself. Jack Ross made only two changes, both to full backs, as Adam Matthews and Bryan Oviedo missed out due to knocks, with Donald Love and Reece James starting in their place. Glen Loovens and Jack Baldwin, who have formed a fairly formidable partnership of late, made up the back four. Max Power partnered Lee Cattermole in the heart of midfield whilst the trio of Gooch, Honeyman and Maguire played behind the red-hot Josh Maja.
Gillingham made no changes from the team that was beaten 2-1 away at Walsall on Saturday. Tomas Holy started in goal whilst Luke O’Neill, Max Ehmer, Gabriel Zakuani and Bradley Garmston made up the back four. Billy Bingham started at the base of a midfield diamond, flanked by Regan Charles-Cook and Mark Byrne. Josh Parker started behind Brandon Hanlan and Tom Eaves.
Return of the Catts
What has been evident to many over the last three games is the triumphant return of Sunderland’s longest serving player, Lee Cattermole, to the starting line up. Thankfully the performances of the club’s former captain have been very solid which led to him retaining his place even though Dylan McGeouch was available for selection against Gillingham.
The performance of Cattermole at the Priestfield Stadium can only be described as disciplined - a type of performance many claimed he was unable of delivering. Throughout the game Cattermole was hardly ever caught out of position, if at all, and didn’t simply charge around the pitch fouling people. This change of role without the ball is shown by Cattermole’s performance in the second half; after he had been booked. In previous seasons Cattermole has become a passenger when carrying a yellow card but against Gillingham it hardly effected his performance as he continued to be disciplined positionally, not straying too far from his position in-front of the defence and continued to break up play.
Cattermole’s discipline was not only evident without the ball, but also with it. Cattermole avoided attempting Hollywood 40-yard passes and instead knew his role. Once he got the ball he would lay it off too the more creative players, such as Max Power.
The role of Cattermole, combined with that of Power and Honeyman, is making Sunderland’s central midfield look extremely balanced. Cattermole is the ball-winner who sits in-front of the defence breaking up the play; Power is the link between the defence and the attack, the box-to-box midfielder who comes deep and plays long balls to the wingers and also appears in and around the box - as seen by his last two goals. The final piece of the midfield jigsaw is Honeyman who operates slightly further forward than Power and Cattermole. Because of this Honeyman’s moves laterally to exchange passes with the wingers and appears in the channels, the area of the the pitch where he scored his goal from in this game.
Baldwin and Loovens - A match made in heaven?
It is not only in the midfield where Sunderland are developing a strong partnership - Jack Baldwin and Glenn Loovens have looked solid ever since they first played together at Luton Town. What is most pleasing about the duo is that they offer cover for each other, rather than one player having to constantly bail out their partner.
The success of the pair was highlighted by the behaviour of Gillingham striker Tom Eaves. Early in the first half Eaves looked to run into the channels behind the Sunderland defence, however this came with little success as whenever the ball was hit into the channel the centre backs would come across as a pair and even if Eaves could beat one defender, the other was there to mop up. This is a huge change from the first game of the season where Charlton’s Lyle Taylor caused the nightmare duo of Loovens of Ozturk all kinds of problems simply by running into these channels.
Special praise should be reserved for Baldwin, who hardly put a foot wrong all night. The former Peterborough captain made a number of brilliantly timed challenges and constantly won the ball in the air. Despite his impressive defensive performance, what stands out in Baldwin’s game is his composure on the ball; rarely did Baldwin hoof the ball aimlessly up-field and he was happy to take a touch before passing the ball forwards after winning a challenge with the Gillingham forwards.
Struggles against balls into the box
Despite a resounding 4-1 scoreline, the game could have been much closer had the hosts been more clinical in-front of goal. Gillingham were a threat throughout from set pieces and Tom Eaves had a great chance to score and make it 3-2 at the end of the first half.
The goal scored by the aforementioned Eaves left a lot to be desired from a Sunderland point of view, as a fairly standard ball into the back post was misjudged by goalkeeper McLaughlin, who got in a tangle with Loovens and Power and Eaves headed home. The only other goals conceded by Sunderland this season have been a penalty against Charlton and a goal from a corner against Luton, so it is possible that this could be a theme for the season. Sunderland looked comfortable during open play but Gillingham looked a threat throughout from corners and free kicks.
The most important thing is, of course, that Sunderland managed to see out the final 70 minutes of the game but it would be wise for Jack Ross to look at ways to ensure that conceding goals from set pieces does not become too regular an occurrence throughout the season.
Overall, it was a good performance from Jack Ross’ side which gave Sunderland back-to-back wins after the complete performance against Scunthorpe on Sunday. Improvements can still be made to the team but from the evidence so-far Jack Ross and his staff will be working hard to correct these issues before they become costly.
A special mention should be reserved for Josh Maja, who became the first Sunderland player to score in the first four league games since the 1920’s. Maja has improved game-by game and his hold up play was excellent has he bagged an assist to go alongside his tap in which made it 4-1.