Jack Ross made two predicable changes from the side that won 2-1 at AFC Wimbledon last Saturday. Alim Ozturk replaced Glenn Loovens, and Bryan Oviedo replaced Reece James.
This meant that Sunderland lined up in a their preferred lopsided 4-2-3-1 formation; Jon McLaughlin continued in goal as Donald Love, Ozturk, Jack Baldwin and Oviedo made up the back four. Lee Cattermole and Max Power resumed their midfield partnership and the trio of Lynden Gooch, George Honeyman and Chris Maguire played behind Josh Maja. New signing Charlie Wyke was on the bench for the first time.
Oxford United also lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation as they made six changes from the side that defeated Newport County 3-0 in the Carabao Cup on Wednesday night.
Curtis Nelson, Cameron Brannagan, James Henry, Marcus Browne, Ricky Holmes and Jamie Mackie came in for Robert Dickie, Luke Garbutt, Jamie Hanson, Jonathan Obika, Gavin Whyte and Sam Smith. Jonathan Mitchell started in goal behind a defence of Cameran Norman, Nelson, John Mousinho and Josh Ruffels. Brannagan and Henry started in the middle of the park with Shandon Baptiste, Browne and Holmes in behind former QPR striker Jamie Mackie.
Another slow start
For the third game in a row Sunderland went behind early in the game. However, this time, Sunderland’s slow start was worsened by the sending off of Max Power a few minutes after Ricky Holmes scored a free kick from the edge of the box to give Oxford the lead.
Unlike in recent games, Sunderland’s main difficulty did not come from sheer physicality but from Oxford United’s ability to win fouls, which meant that Sunderland were unable to gain any rhythm during the game.
This not only affected Sunderland on the ball but meant that the pressing style we have seen from Jack Ross’ side was not nearly as effective as in recent games.
What it is that Sunderland are lacking at the start of games is not quite known yet. Is it the way we warm up? Is it just the fact we’re confident and, as such, take our eye off the ball early doors? Or is the more likely scenario just that we aren’t setting ourselves up to control games and, as such, we’re conceding too much possession at a time in the game where our opponents are at their least vulnerable?
Last week against AFC Wimbledon, Dylan McGeouch was brought on to try and help Sunderland gain some control in midfield and he would be the obvious replacement for Max Power if the appeal against his red card is unsuccessful.
This could be a blessing in disguise for Sunderland and the introduction of McGeouch could be the way that Sunderland gain some control from the start of games.
Charlie Wyke makes an immediate impact
The main positive from the game at the weekend was the goal scored by Charlie Wyke, just seven minutes into his debut. As expected, Wyke also gave Sunderland a physical presence up front and this freed up Maja to drop deep - as he likes to do - more frequently.
The change in the role of Maja, allowed by the presence of Wyke, can be seen in the goal where Maja gets the ball in his own half before dribbling forward and playing a cross-field ball to Gooch on the right, who fired in a cross-come-shot which was helped on its way into the bottom corner by the former Bradford forward.
Wyke’s physicality also allowed Sunderland to play deeper for the last few minutes as they settled for a hard-earned point after playing much of the game with ten men.
The 25-year old seems like a proper league one centre forward who will be in his element when in a battle with bruising central defenders, and his introduction should bring even more out of Josh Maja who played in the ‘Chris Maguire role’ as an inside left forward.
The game against Oxford United was probably the closest Sunderland have came to losing their unbeaten record so far.
Oxford were the better team and had sixteen shots to Sunderland’s six, with the Black Cats scoring with their only shot on target.
Despite the tactical changes at half time, the most striking aspect of what Sunderland’s team are capable of remains their ability to grind out results despite not playing at their best, and the point on Saturday was a good example of this.