Goalkeeper: Jon McLaughlin
The Scotland international has had a busy Christmas period and will be asked for a final push this week, as we travel to Blackpool and then Charlton in quick succession. Next week’s Checkatrade Trophy match against Newcastle United’s U23 side will probably be an opportunity to rest McLaughlin and allow Robbin Ruiter further game-time in the EFL competition.
Today, though, McLaughlin will be seeking his second clean sheet in three games. For Sunderland to maintain a challenge to both Portsmouth and the in-form Luton Town, much will depend on defensive solidity. In McLaughlin, Jack Ross knows he has a safe pair of hands to achieve exactly that.
Defence: O’Nien, Flanagan, Baldwin, James
Bryan Oviedo got the nod over Reece James to start on Saturday but, following injury, was replaced by the former Wigan man five minutes into the second half. Such has been the intensity of games that it is unlikely that Jack Ross will risk any player carrying a knock during this period. Therefore, James is likely to start today at left-back.
Luke O’Nien continues to carve himself a new career as Sunderland’s right-back and certainly didn’t look out of place again at the weekend. With Adam Matthews recovering from injury, there really is no need to throw the Welshman back in whilst O’Nien is performing so well.
In the middle, it is hoped that Sunderland’s recruitment team are eyeing up a little help for Tom Flanagan and Jack Baldwin. Both players have been central to Sunderland’s league position, but playing game on game takes it toll. By his own admission, Baldwin says performances have dipped. Mistakes have crept in and Sunderland need to find a way of keeping clean sheets once more. They seemed to dry up in early November and we were very lucky that Bradford left on Boxing Day without a goal to their name, thanks to the League One officials.
Let’s hope the New Year starts with a few shut-outs once more.
Defensive Midfield: McGeouch & Power
It will be interesting to see how Jack Ross lines up today and none moreso than in central midfield. Lee Cattermole and Max Power haven’t been the effective partnership we have witnessed previously this season over the course of the Christmas schedule.
Against Bradford, the team were fortunate to come away with a 1-0 win. The Cattermole-Power combination didn’t grab the game by the scruff of its neck and impose themselves upon our visitors. Similarly, there was perhaps little surprise that Shrewsbury took the lead and then maintained their point, during the second half. Of the two, perhaps Cattermole was the poorer player, but neither have had a good festive period to imagine they can’t be dropped.
Dylan McGeouch is arguably the man to come into contention today. His ability to control a football and dictate tempo will be a key factor in getting us back on the front foot. Criticism abounds that he isn’t the best tackler in the squad, but he reads the game well and intercepts many passes, before recycling possession in Sunderland’s favour.
There is a clear argument for a number of changes today and it is hoped the Scot will take his opportunity to kick on in a Sunderland shirt.
Attacking Midfield: Watmore, Honeyman & McGeady
Up front, there simply has to be changes today. Chris Maguire has come under some criticism and has been relegated to the bench a couple of times of late. On Saturday, Lynden Gooch wasn’t at his best and seemed to have one game-plan in his mind. When that failed, there was simply no Plan B.
Both players are showing signs of fatigue after a gruelling first half of the season.
As fans, we must remember the players have had to deal with the mental side of the game as much as the physical. For players like Maguire, this is a new club and, without being unkind, a step up in size and expectation. For others like Gooch, it has been six months to throw off years of frustration and a losing mentality. Neither scenario is easy and credit to players for finding high levels of consistency. But the fact is both players need a proper break to recharge and go again.
Aiden McGeady and Duncan Watmore are two players who have been eased back into competitive action following long injuries. McGeady remains our in-form attacker and should retain his place today. Watmore, though, should be afforded a start, perhaps wide in place of Gooch.
In the last couple of games Sunderland have missed their captain. Views differ on George Honeyman, but it should be visible that we have been a better team recently with him present. Hopefully, Jack Ross has managed the ankle injury well enough by giving the former Academy star a chance at playing today.
Striker: Josh Maja
Charlie Wyke showed in his cameo performance on Saturday that Sunderland now have an viable alternative to Josh Maja. The former Bradford striker offers a different kind of option, but one that looks solid and offers something for the second half of the season.
Maja bagged his 14th goal of the season on Saturday, but all the talk afterwards was of a deadline the club have imposed on his signing a new contract. No doubt that announcement will be met with a concern that today may be his last Sunderland appearance, with others already suggesting if he’s not selected at Blackpool the decision is clear.
For months we have heard how happy Maja is at the club and how he has enjoyed playing for Jack Ross. It is hoped that his name will be on the teamsheet today and any final negotiations can be ironed out to secure his signature in the coming days.