Sunderland manager Jack Ross set the rumour mill flowing as Josh Maja was absent from the squad due to illness, and his place went to Chris Maguire who broke a dry spell with a goal in midweek.
Despite Maja’s absence, Sunderland continued with the 4-4-2 formation which has been used in recent weeks. Jon McLaughlin was again exceptional in goal, whilst the back four of Luke O’Nien, Tom Flanagan, Jack Baldwin and Reece James were also impressive. Dylan McGeouch and Max Power started in the middle of the pitch, flanked by Lynden Gooch on the right and captain Aiden McGeady on the left. Maguire partnered Charlie Wyke up front.
The only change for Luton was on the bench, as Mick Harford took the place of former manager Nathan Jones who made the move to Stoke during the week. The starting eleven was unchanged from the last league game - a bore-draw at Barnsley all the way back on New Years’ Day.
Like Charlton last week, Luton lined up in a 4-4-2 diamond formation. James Shea started in goal. Matthews Pearson and Sonny Bradley started in the heart of defence, with the full backs Jack Stacey and James Justin providing the width. Alan McCormack started at the base of midfield with Pelly Ruddock to his left and Andrew Shinnie to his right. Elliot Lee started in the number ten position, behind strikers James Collins and Danny Hylton.
In recent weeks Luke O’Nien had repaid the faith Jack Ross has had in him, and against Luton on Saturday Dylan McGeouch started to show he is doing the same.
In the first ten minutes especially, when Sunderland were under the cosh, McGeouch seemed to be the only player in red and white who didn’t look rushed when on the ball. This is something Hibs fans promised us, and is reflected in his 75% passing accuracy across his 51 passes in the ninety minutes - the highest number of passes by anyone in a Sunderland shirt. And before you say it, around half of these passes were forward ones.
Whilst, McGeouch was good on the ball at the Stadium of Light, it was his work off it that we really missed before he came back into the team. His inclusion meant that Sunderland are much more solid in the middle of the park, and this allows Max Power to try and influence the play higher up the pitch. His vital defensive contributions are not based on opinions, but are backed up by the stats, as his 10 ball recoveries ranked him second amongst Sunderland players - with only Jack Baldwin making more.
Dylan McGeouch seems to becoming the new George Honeyman amongst Sunderland supporters. No matter how well he does his job, that job is underappreciated and can often go unnoticed. And I would say that he, like Honeyman, is missed when out of the side - as we simply don’t have true defensive midfielder in our side.
The return of the King
Like McGeouch, another player who has not been at his absolute best for a few weeks not is Chris Maguire, but he scored his first goal for some time in midweek and his clinical finish was enough to put Sunderland ahead against their promotion rivals.
Since Aiden McGeady’s return to form and fitness there has been a clear drop in Maguire’s performances as the Scot was pushed away from his left wing position and into a number ten role.
Against Luton, Maguire against started centrally, but operated as more of a genuine striker than an attacking midfielder, and this lead to a much improved performance.
When Sunderland were without the ball, Maguire was the man tasked with both pressing from the front, and running the channels or the more static Wyke. This pressing in central forward areas is something Sunderland have missed since Honeyman’s injury, as this is the strength of neither Wyke nor Maja.
Of course the highlight of Maguire’s performance was the goal, and a well-take one at that. Hopefully this signals the return of the Chris Maguire we saw earlier in the season, and if this is the case, improved team performances would mean his contributions result in wins rather than draws.
Charlie Wyke struggled to get into the game
Whilst the performances of McGeouch and Maguire were positives, the performance of fellow summer signing Charlie Wyke was not.
The former Carlisle striker just didn’t get into the game, something which is shown by the fact that he made only 12 passes - comfortably less than any other Sunderland starter, and only two more than Oviedo; who was only on the pitch for ten minutes.
This lack of involvement could be down to the player around him, and their poor service into him, but regardless Wyke hardly covered himself in glory when given opportunities.
Like last week at Charlton, the former Bradford hitman missed a good opportunity to score Sunderland’s second of the game; his header from the edge of the six yard box ballooning over the bar. This lack of sharpness in front of goal is hopefully something which will come with time, and it is widely known that Wyke is a genuine goalscorer at this level.
All stats from Instat