Sunderland made seven changes to the side that started against Stoke U21s on Tuesday night. Jon McLaughlin, Adam Matthews, Glenn Loovens, Jack Baldwin, Lee Cattermole, Lynden Gooch and George Honeyman came in for Robin Ruiter, Reece James, Alim Ozturk, Tom Flanagan, Ethan Robson, Luke O’Nien and Charlie Wyke.
Bryan Oviedo and Bali Mumba were unavailable due to international call ups and Max Power started his three game suspension after a red card against Oxford United.
Sunderland lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with McLaughlin in goal; Matthews, Loovens, Baldwin and Hume in defence, Lee Cattermole and McGeouch as a double pivote behind Lynden Gooch, George Honeyman and Chris Maguire who played in support of Josh Maja who was chosen ahead of Charlie Wyke up front.
Joey Barton’s Fleetwood Town made one change from the side that beat Bradford City 1-0 at home last Saturday as Wes Burns, who was suspended due to his sending off in that game, made way for Conor McAleny. Alex Cairns started in goal with Lewie Coyle, Craig Morgan, Ashley Eastham and James Husband in the back four. McAleny, Dean Marney, Jason Holt and Ashley Hunter started in midfield as the goalscorer Paddy Madden started up front alongside Ched Evans.
Sunderland missed Max Power’s box-to-box running
In the first half especially there was a clear disconnect between Sunderland’s double pivote of Cattermole and McGeouch, and the attacking midfield trio of Gooch, Honeyman and Maguire. This could be the start of an issue for Sunderland as Luke O’Nien’s early struggles coupled with Max Power’s suspension means that there is no obvious candidate for the box-to-box role in Sunderland’s midfield.
However, despite both Cattermole and McGeouch playing the full ninety minutes, Sunderland didn’t have this problem in the second half. This was due to the introduction of first Jerome Sinclair and then Charlie Wyke who provided the option for long balls; either over the top or to the physical presence of Wyke. This could be one option for Jack Ross to link defence and attack in the absence of Max Power - play a more direct style of play in the build up play. Get the ball to Wyke who can then bring the three attacking midfielders into the game.
An alternative option for Ross, presuming he does not see Luke O’Nien as a viable option just yet, would be to drop captain George Honeyman into a deeper role alongside a single pivote of either McGeouch or Cattermole and replace him in attacking midfield with Josh Maja and Charlie Wyke or Jerome Sinclair up front. This plan would not come as too much as a surprise as, at St. Mirren, last season Ross converted Kyle Magennis, who played on the right of his attacking trio, into this kind of midfielder.
Of course the most likely way Jack Ross will attempt to solve this issue would be to bring in star signing Charlie Wyke and, due to the recent poor form of Chris Maguire, Josh Maja could retain his place in the side by playing in the inside left role - especially once the overlapping Bryan Oviedo returns from international duty. Furthermore, there would be no obvious candidate for Jack Ross to drop in the midfield duo as McGeouch and Cattermole have put in decent performances since they came into the side.
Three strikers that all offer something different
During the game against Fleetwood, all of Sunderland’s three strikers were given some game time up front and it was evident that they all offer something different in terms of how Sunderland can play. Josh Maja, who started the game, likes to drift away from his position into the channels and deep into the number ten role. This is what has led many people, myself included, to claim that the teenage striker may be better off with someone else alongside him up front.
The first change of the game saw Jerome Sinclair come on for the disappointing Chris Maguire. Although at the time it was thought that this change would be a straight swap - with Sinclair taking up Maguire’s role on the right of the attacking midfield three - Sinclair actually went up front, with Maja dropping back to attacking midfield and George Honeyman moving out to the right wing. Despite the fact that Sinclair’s stint as the lone striker lasted only 12 minutes - until Charlie Wyke was introduced - it was clear that he posed a very different threat to the Fleetwood defence than Josh Maja. Sinclair hardly ever looked to drop deep for the ball and instead looked to run in-behind the opposition defence and stretch the play, a style of play that may come in very useful if Sunderland look to hit teams on the break.
The final striker to be introduced into the fold was the aforementioned Wyke, the man who many expect to emerge as Sunderland’s main striker.
Although it wasn’t his best game on Saturday, it is clear that he will offer something different to both Sinclair and Maja as he competes for long balls with the opposition central defenders and offers a target if Sunderland look to go direct and bypass the midfield. I also look forward to seeing Wyke starting once Bryan Oviedo returns as both he and Lynden Gooch look to hug the touchline and, with the former Boro forward on the pitch, would have the option of hitting early crosses into the box for him to attack.
Despite not managing to get the ball over the line during the second half, Sunderland were comfortably the better team and they looked a threat from set pieces - something which I believe is no coincidence after the introduction of strikers Wyke and Sinclair and full back Tom Flanagan, who all added some physicality to a side which has lacked exactly that all season.
Overall the performance was a clear improvement on Sunderland’s last league outing against Oxford United.
Despite some problems early on against set pieces, again, and having Jon McLaughlin to thank after he saved a penalty just after half time, Sunderland were by far the most likely team to score after this save.
If it wasn’t for Jack Baldwin’s miss from inside the six yard box, the superb save which denied Tom Flanagan a goal or the fact Jerome Sinclair hit the post I would be writing about a well-deserved victory against a side who are undoubtedly going to do well this season.