Team Selection - Unchanged
Jack Ross was able to name an unchanged side for the first time this season, as injury worries are finally starting to ease. Reece James and Don Love continued at full-back, though Bryan Oviedo pushed both to start from the outset.
In reality, Ross still has very few options - five players missed out entirely and Dylan McGeouch and Oviedo himself had only just proved themselves fit within the last few days. Charlie Wyke would've been a welcome boost to the side considering Wimbledon’s sheer height and physicality - which really troubled us for the hour of the match - but unfortunately he only returned to training on Tuesday morning.
I am glad Dylan McGeouch hasn't been rushed back into starting to early; I’d much rather he miss a month now than three down the line. On the other hand, Bryan Oviedo only missed the mid-week game against Gillingham through a knock, and I think has to be in the starting line-up when fit.
Although Reece James didn’t perform badly, Oviedo’s introduction helped to swing the game into our favour, as his class just genuinely shines through at this level. Either full-back could’ve came out for him, but we got the win and it is easy to say in hindsight.
Verdict: Players are on their way back, and a squad already brimming with confidence is now going to be really pushed and tested by genuine competition. Ross didn’t quite have that on Saturday - unchanged was the sensible option.
Tactics - Game-changing in second-half
For the first time this season we have seen the real danger of League One.
Up until the hour-mark we were bullied out of the game, both physically and mentally. Wimbledon fielded a side with eight players over 6’0 including James Hanson, Joe Pigott, Liam Trotter and Anthony Wordsworth in their attacking spine - four players well-known to be effective operators in the Football League.
Their game plan was obvious from the outset - to pump as many balls into the box as fast as possible; a proper, old-school performance Gordon Taylor would absolutely adore. As a result, we panicked as soon as Andy Barcham beat Don Love too easily on the left-hand side and Glenn Loovens left Joe Pigott free to finish well at the edge of the penalty box.
For the majority of the next hour our passing was stifled and sloppy, as the whole side dropped further and further deep in fear of the aerial ball in behind. As a result, Wimbledon captain - and effective central defender - Deji Oshilaja was allowed to roam the pitch at ease and completely dominate an ineffective Josh Maja.
It must be said that this is a young side generally not used to so many games in quick succession (five in 15 days just a month into the new season) and the tiring legs were evident on Saturday. Loovens looked particularly rusty, and with the 34-year-old having played three games in six days was unsurprisingly hooked at half-time. More on that later.
Although I thought Max Power did perform well too - and to be honest better than Cattermole in the first half - his substitution made sense. We clearly needed players in the middle to dictate play slowly and keep a calm head, and Power was too guilty at times of forcing the issue in midfield and going long, essentially playing into the home side’s hands.
Ross changed tactics in the second-half, as well as personnel. Our whole unit was pushed 10-15 yards deeper in order to keep the ball, and close the gaps between the lines in which Wimbledon were finding freedom throughout the first-half. McGeouch and Cattermole acted as a genuine double-pivot for the first-time under Ross, as the game plan to overload their four-man midfield finally paid dividends.
In short, this game is a warning. We have - at times - played some fantastic attacking football this season, but we haven’t really dominated to the point that results suggest. It is clear Wimbledon learned from Gillingham by pinpointing our lack of physicality as a real vulnerability. Although the three points were achieved on Saturday, due to the inconsistent performances within games by the squad as a whole, and suffering in terms of game-management against Luton, Gillingham and Charlton - this game was coming.
Yet, despite this, we got through. Ross once again changed tactics and the Lads dug deep and came from behind to win for the third time already this season.
Verdict: Ross’ changes changed the game - again. We’ve won three in a row, and have recorded four wins in a calendar month for the first time since 2007. Momentum is very much on our side, as is the fight and passion to win.
Substitutions - Bang-on
I probably wasn’t the only person absolutely terrified at the sight of Alim Ozturk and Don Love marshaling the right-hand side of our defense on Saturday afternoon. Both players have came under strong criticism and directly contributed to numerous mistakes in both pre-season and early on in the season itself.
Ozturk, however, lives for this style of defensive battle. He clearly suffers from a lack of movement accross the floor, and was ran ragged by the pace of Lyle Taylor and Karlan Grant - but put him in a proper physical battle with James Hanson and he will perform. It is by no surprise that he was successful in Scotland with Hearts, as Wimbledon’s style suited him to an absolute tee. Barring one mis-kick, he looked calm, composed and dominant against a difficult pairing.
Ozturk has rightfully found his critics, but he is the only defender in our squad who provides a genuine dominant aerial presence. Due to the nature of this league, our own “entertainers” style of play and the physical make-up of the side, he will prove to be important at times this season.
The introduction of Oviedo and McGeouch in quick succession genuinely changed the game. The Costa Rican’s penetrating in behind their defensive lines stretched the defence and allowed the Scot to dictate matters from deep.
Ross - through an obviously effective half-time team-talk and brave substitutions - turned the game completely on its head, as the Lads finally stopped panicking and getting drawn into the home sides style. Instead, we calmed down on the ball and played some great possession football, and in the end grabbed a vital, vital three points that looked unlikely to even be one for over an hour.
Verdict: Ross scared the life out of us at half-time, but he stuck to his guns and once against got the big calls absolutely spot on.
Post-match comments - Unifying
I think already in a short space of time we’ve shown really good character on different occasions and that was a a big one. We challenged them at half-time – ‘Can you go and win a game having been behind at half-time?’
When you do that, I know as a player, emotionally it’s a really good way to win a game. They’ll travel home in a really good frame of mind.
I’d love to have been a fly-on-the-wall in that dressing room. Ross doesn’t come accross as the sort of manager to furiously stick the boot in and have a real go with some old-school hairdyer treatment, but you should’ve heard him on the touchline.
All those behind the dugout in the away end (literally inches from it) and watching on commentary-less streams (everywhere else in the world bar the UK, of course) commented on hearing Ross fume throughout the whole of the first-half.
It’s been a good start for us because we’ve won in different ways as well and we’re going to have to do that, particularly away from home.
I thought Lee [Cattermole] was one of the few in the first half who stood up to it because I said at half-time I thought we got outfought and outworked a little bit. I don’t mean that in a condescending way against Wimbledon because they played well too. If you don’t have that application at any level of football it’s difficult to get a platform.
I think Lee was one of the few who looked at it. In the first half and even in the dressing room at half-time I could tell where he was at. I thought the system change to get Dylan [McGeouch] on the park also brought more out of him.
I think he’s in a good place at the moment. He was telling me he’s got seven goals in his career, in the hundreds of games he’s played, and certainly never a brace.
Goals aside, Cattermole was absolutely brilliant in the second-half. McGeouch acted as the water carrier as he was allowed to roam, and rolled back the years. His timing for and movement within the run for his wonderfully-placed second was as genuinely excellent as the whole move was unbelievable.
I’ve rarely been so happy to eat my words.
What a transformation since the Sheff Wed game.
I couldn't be happier in that sense. I think you would always take wins in any circumstances.
I always reflect on games anyway and there were aspects I wasn’t happy with, things we need to do better, but you should have that all the time, regardless of how you win.
Wednesday was no different even though the scoreline was more comfortable.
For the whole group it’s been challenging because although we’ve been based down here it was pretty sterile. You don’t give them a lot of downtime and there was a lot of prepping for the game.
The good thing is the group are enjoying being in each other’s company at the moment and it’s nice for them to get to the end of the week with another three points and have a little bit of a break before they come back in to prepare for Oxford.
The ability to get the three points back to Sunderland after such a long 7 days is a winning mentality. Without inferring anything else this early, I think it should be left at that.
As a way of a last word, the recruitment team really deserve the utmost praise. Not only have the new signings breathed some much-needed enthusiasm back into a core group who suffered psychologically for the past 18 months, but the mentality and balance on the pitch is absolutely what we as fans love to see in the side. Part of Lee Cattermole’s current renaissance in what could’ve been the twilight of his Sunderland career a month ago is due to how both midfield new signings (Power and McGeouch) compliment his own game.
Verdict: It was a difficult week, and Ross once again stressed unity. Look at how the Lads interact off and on the pitch, just how likeable is every single person involved in that first-team? A genuine far-cry from the last three years.