Sunderland return to the Stadium of Light today for their third successive home game, and the delightful prospect of a visit from none other than Joey Barton.
A home game against Fleetwood Town might sound like a chance to comfortably dispatch some minnows - there’ll be more people at the ground on Saturday than the entire population of Fleetwood - but Barton has his team playing well, and they’re only three points behind ourselves in sixth place.
Fleetwood have yet to concede away from home, and an opening day defeat to Wimbledon aside have had a very strong start to the season, registering 2-0 and 5-0 wins away at Oxford and Scunthorpe respectively that perhaps put our own results against these teams in a bleaker light.
While its been incredibly dramatic, and a refreshing show of character to come from behind to win three of our six league games so far, we saw last Saturday that we cannot continue to start slowly and ride our luck if we want to secure promotion.
Today presents a fantastic opportunity for the Lads to prove that, while we are a League One club, we have quality on and off the pitch that our competition could only aspire to. Now’s the time to produce a solid, workmanlike victory - without mounting a comeback or losing our heads early on - to provide a platform to build upon.
We can’t let Joey Barton leave with a smile on his face.
Whilst the international window and farcical refereeing have ruled out Bryan Oviedo, Bali Mumba and Max Power, there are some welcome selection decisions for Jack Ross as key players return from injury and gain fitness.
In defence, Glenn Loovens and Adam Matthews are back in training and in contention for a place, and Tom Flanagan’s encouraging display against Stoke in midweek will likely land him a place on the bench. Alim Ozturk and Jack Baldwin look the likeliest centre back pairing, despite the former’s less than encouraging performances so far.
Donald Love has had a rather poor start to the season, and has reportedly been playing through a knock, so could well give way to Denver Hume following his strong midweek display. Reece James is a nailed-on replacement for Bryan Oviedo at left back.
Lee Cattermole and George Honeyman will undoubtedly start in midfield, but the absence of Max Power poses a potential headache for Jack Ross. Dylan McGeouch is almost certainly fit to start but could exacerbate our lack of energy and physicality in the centre.
On the wings, Lynden Gooch and Chris Maguire have without doubt secured their starting berths, with Jerome Sinclair ready to come off the bench if needed. Charlie Wyke is a contender to replace Josh Maja as the sole striker, with Maja’s inability to provide an outlet against Oxford United a problem instantly solved by Wyke’s physical presence.
Off the pitch, the janitorial team has received a welcome boost in the form of Papy Djilibodji’s return from his self-imposed exile. Welcome back, Papy!
The Gaffer Says...
Both (Glenn and Adam) are very close and will be in consideration for the weekend. It’s just about balancing up what they’ve done recently and what other options we have available.
Every team we have faced this season at home have approached the game in a different manner. So, what we have learned in a very short space of time is that we have to be ready for whatever the game provides and last Saturday we probably didn’t do that particularly well.
There have been other games when we have started the game well but fallen behind for whatever reason. The pleasing thing is we have reacted well in every game, naturally though we would like to go ahead in games and stay ahead.
I don’t know (how Fleetwood will set up) because we have already seen teams approach games in different ways at the Stadium of Light. Oxford were very aggressive in how they pressed and approached the game high up the pitch.
In terms of our preparation we can’t always say for certain how a team will shape up. What I can say though, is if they approach it the same way Oxford did then we will be better prepared than we were last weekend.
There are parallels to be drawn between Fleetwood’s last match and our own. At home to Bradford City, Barton’s team not only held out following the first-half dismissal of key winger Wes Burns, but scored soon after half time to run out 2-1 winners. Fleetwood start quickly and score early, and the 48th minute winner last Saturday suggests Barton can fire up his team.
We can’t let ourselves start another game sluggishly, but we also cannot afford to go out overly pumped up as we did against Oxford, we must remain composed and keep our shape and discipline.
In terms of playing style, Barton has obviously learned a lot from Sean Dyche while at Burnley, so expect something very similar. Fleetwood have so far played in a very tight, structured 4-4-2, with a deep block when off the ball that’s only conceded four goals so far this season, and none away from home.
Fleetwood attack down the wings and aim to get in crosses to their strong striker partnership of Paddy Madden and Ched Evans, with the latter scoring 5 in his 6 league games this season. Wes Burns’ unsuccessful appeal against his suspension somewhat mitigates Oviedo’s absence, but James Husband and Ashley Hunter have struck up a strong partnership down the left that is highly worrying given our weakness at right-back.
The timing of this match is vital. If any manager was going to take inspiration from the way Oxford United took advantage of our mindset last week, it was Barton. He’ll have his team motivated, and more than willing to employ some sh*thousery.
In his press conference for the match he did his best Mourinho impression, blatantly trying to rile up Sunderland’s players and fans:
For me, this is just another game. I’ve been there as a player and played derbies at Sunderland. It’s the same as playing another big club like we did against Bradford.
On the pitch is where it matters, and I don’t see a David v Goliath. If anything, I see us just better than them, man for man. It’s just another game for us. I think Sunderland have more to lose in front of their home fans than we do.