Goalkeeper: Jon McLaughlin
Jon McLaughlin will have been the most disappointed player in the Sunderland dressing room last week. Having seen your side win by three goals is normally cause for celebration throughout the team, but McLaughlin will be cursing missing out on a clean sheet.
If Sunderland are to clinch promotion, finding a way to achieve shut-outs is a must.
May is a long way away, and we’re not getting ahead of ourselves, but having a solid defence builds confidence - it will separate you from the pack, and that’s what we’ll have to do sooner or later.
Much will rely on McLaughlin and his defence as the season unfolds.
Defence: Flanagan, Baldwin, Loovens
The introduction of Tom Flanagan had an immediate impact last week. Many fans were checking their watches as fifteen, then twenty minutes passed and we hadn’t conceded!
Flanagan had brought a sense of calmness and composure where Adam Matthews had been lacking in previous weeks. Alongside him, Glenn Loovens continued to bring a wealth of experience and Jack Baldwin was simply Jack... as usual. The trio formed a solid backbone and allowed young Denver Hume to operate as a left wing-back to compliment the work of Lynden Gooch on the right.
There was a balance, an understanding, a style of play that suited the back three and gave the team confidence from the off.
Another day, another test, but let’s hope the new partnerships will continue to flourish today - maybe even achieving the season’s second clean sheet.
Gooch, Cattermole, Power, Honeyman & Hume
Lynden Gooch is fast becoming the first name on the team sheet. A brace last week, an energetic display of creative attacking and sensible defending, and a desire to play for the shirt has cemented the American’s status as a crowd-favourite. Perhaps a new role for him this season, but Gooch has taken to the wing-back role with consumate ease.
Denver Hume came back into the side last week, replacing Bryan Oviedo after a somewhat lacklustre performance from the Costa Rican the week before. The youngster didn’t disappoint. In fact, he has looked good in every game he’s played this season. Jack Ross will be monitoring Hume’s development, not wishing to push the Academy product too far too soon. Ross has Reece James to call upon, in addition to Oviedo, but I suspect he’ll show faith in Hume again today.
The biggest question is over the three in the middle. Lee Cattermole has more than justified his selection this season. Like Oviedo, there were doubts over his future at Sunderland this summer, and those may be raised again as January approaches, such is our wage-bill. But, for now, Cattermole deserves his place in the side.
The former captain has played his best football with Max Power alongside him. With his suspension served, Power gives Jack Ross options. With a huge game on Tuesday against Peterborough, Ross will want to ensure his engine room ticks over smoothly throughout the week. Does McGeough come out and offer a fresh option on Tuesday? Or does Power start on the bench, with an eye to playing the full ninety minutes against The Posh? What of George Honeyman? Is there an option where the skipper is rested today?
I suspect Ross will want to keep the momentum going and Power will line up alongside Cattermole, with Honeyman asked to continue to provide the more advanced creativity. It may be harsh on McGeough, who did little wrong last week, but as he eases his way back to full fitness, two games in three days is a big ask.
Forwards: Josh Maja & Chris Maguire
Josh Maja is quickly getting noticed. Seven goals in nine league games thus far is a fantastic record for any striker, let alone a teenager in his breakthrough season. Maja’s cameos last season showed a raw talent, an intelligent striker, but one with areas to improve. Jack Ross and his coaching staff are working closely with the 19-year-old to improve his game, and it’s showing week on week.
Any player will tell you that confidence is a great thing, but for a striker it’s key. Maja must be thinking he will score every week, such is the form he is in - and long may that be the case. With Charlie Wyke out for a while, Duncan Watmore only starting full training this week and Jerome Sinclair finding his feet during his loan spell on Wearside, much is being put on Maja’s shoulders currently. But the youngster is more than matching expectations.
Supporting him is Chris Maguire, who has found his form after a couple of dodgy performances at the start of the month. His experience and guile is the perfect foil for Maja and there are certainly goals in this team as a result.
Whilst it’s a long way off Quinn & Phillips, hopefully the emerging M&M partnership will continue to bear fruit in front of the lunchtime TV cameras at the Ricoh Arena today.