Goalkeeper: Jon McLaughlin
Whatever Jack Ross tinkers with ahead of his goalkeeper, the fact is Jon McLaughlin will continue to be the last line of defence. The Scottish goalkeeper has been outstanding for large parts of the season. Fans rightly bemoan the high figure in the ‘Drawn’ column on any version of the league table, but let’s be honest, without McLaughlin the ‘Lost’ column would have incorporated the vast majority of their number.
Turning draws into wins is the major pre-occupation of Jack Ross right now, but he can count on his goalkeeper to keep Sunderland in the game and recently there has been little the custodian could have done to prevent any opposition goal.
Defence: O’Nien, Flanagan, Baldwin, James
What does Jack Ross do with defence? For a long time this was a settled line-up. Adam Matthews was the recognised right-back, Reece James had deservedly seen off the challenge from Bryan Oviedo, and the Jack Baldwin-Tom Flanagan partnership was uncontested as Sunderand’s best central pairing.
The arrival of highly-rated youngster Jimmy Dunne has thrown the central pair into something of a lottery. Initially on the bench, Dunne has now partnered both Flanagan and Baldwin for a number of games in an attempt to find Ross’ perfect pair. However, maybe the best pairing remains Baldwin and Flanagan. Following a succession of draws, maybe it’s time for the Sunderland gaffer to revert to his former choice.
The full-back positions may continue to pick themselves, with doubts remaining over the fitness of both Adam Matthews and Bryan Oviedo this evening. That means asking Luke O’Nien to continue as an emergency full-back and Reece James to operate down the left.
Defensive Midfield: Grant Leadbitter & George Honeyman
The last couple of games have seen a central pairing of Grant Leadbitter and George Honeyman attempt to wrestle control of the midfield. Jack Ross has tinkered with Lynden Gooch as a central midfielder and then, against Accrington, attempting a 4-4-2 formation that many fans have been crying out for.
Whilst neither was perfect and possession stats remained static, Sunderland managed 18 and then 20 shots in those home games, compared to the 11 against Wimbledon at the start of the month. The shots on target measure significantly increased too, from just two against Wimbledon to six and seven against Accrington and Blackpool.
Hopefully today, the two life-long Sunderland supporters can provide a solid base for a continued improvement in creating opportunities. It’s now up to the attackers to return to their previous 1 in 2 ratio of converting those chances.
Attacking Midfield: Morgan, Maguire, McGeady
Sunderland significantly improved on Tuesday evening when Chris Maguire was introduced. The Lads had found themselves 2-0 down to a side who had scored only in the Checkatrade Trophy since Boxing Day when Maguire was summoned by Ross. Within 60 seconds of his introduction, George Honeyman had pulled a goal back before Maguire’s partner-in-crime, Aiden McGeady, bagged the equaliser seven minutes later.
Ross spoke highly of Maguire in yesterday’s press conference and his inclusion must surely be guaranteed tonight. McGeady, with such an impressive record in front of goal this season, remains a key threat in the final third and will retain his place.
Alongside the pair, I’d argue Lewis Morgan needs to return to the side. Lynden Gooch has had a mixed few games and doesn’t look quite the sharp player he was earlier in the season - exactly the reason Ross took Maguire out a few weeks ago. Morgan’s direct nature and ability to test the opposition defence could prove vital tonight as Sunderland desperately need all three points.
Striker: Will Grigg
Will Grigg needs to get off the mark. Simples. He has had chances, and it is encouraging that he is both finding opportunites and his new teammates are creating those openings for him. Now he simply has to settle down and get off the mark.
The same could be said of Charlie Wyke, but if Chris Maguire gets the nod to play off the central striker, a new relationship with the mobile poacher that is Will Grigg could prove effective. Sunderland need to score first. And second. And then see out the game for three points. It’s about time that song was sung at the Stadium of Light. Maybe tonight.