Goalkeeper: Jon McLaughlin
Jon McLaughlin continues to lead the way in Sunderland’s Player of the Year polls on social media and it’s not hard to see why. The classy goalkeeper has been immense this season and is largely behind the fact Sunderland have lost only twice in League One.
On Tuesday, two goals were conceded but once again it’s hard to see how McLaughlin could have done anything more to prevent them. Ahead of him, Jack Ross needs to find a defensive line to support the ‘keeper and find a way of achieving clean sheets.
Defence: O’Nien, Flanagan, Baldwin, James
Luke O’Nien continues to impress at right back, so much so that Ross has indicated Adam Matthews has not been selected for tactical reasons. The former Wycombe man has won the hearts of many on Wearside and his performances continue to catch the eye. His attacking intentions were once more key as Sunderland recovered from 2-2 to win 4-2, thanks to two penalties O’Nien won.
On the left-hand side, Reece James has looked tired at times and perhaps could do with a break. But with Bryan Oviedo still unavailable and Denver Hume making his way back from injury, the former Manchester United academy product will continue today.
Jimmy Dunne has also looked like he would benefit from a break in recent games. Restoring Jack Baldwin may be a slight risk, given his mistakes against Accrington Stanley, but Jack Ross has spoken highly of the defender and mentioned how he will learn from such experiences. Perhaps away at Bristol is a chance to rest Dunne and restore Baldwin alongside Tom Flanagan. Perhaps our best showings defensively have occurred when these two have been paired together.
Defensive Midfield: Grant Leadbitter & Lee Cattermole
Grant Leadbitter’s ability to drop deep, even as a third centre-half at times, to collect the ball and utilise his range of passing to get Sunderland on the front foot has been a key feature of our recent turnaround. Creating chances was becoming a concern, as was scoring from corners, but Leadbitter’s passing and set piece delivery has turned this around.
Alongside him on Tuesday was Lee Cattermole. A surprising inclusion for many, Cattermole proved his worth with a Man-of-the-Match display. Playing slightly ahead of Leadbitter, the partnership worked well. Perhaps the fact Gillingham failed to press the veteran midfielder allowed Cattermole time and space to play his game – something Rovers may not allow him today. However, such a performance earns him the right to start this afternoon.
Attacking Midfield: Watmore, Honeyman, McGeady
Chris Maguire was a changing force against Accrington, hauling Sunderland from a two-goal deficit to level terms within minutes of his introduction. On Tuesday he started in similar fashion, with his manager’s praises ringing in his ears. However, a broken leg 18 minutes in means Maguire will miss the next two months and presents a huge loss to Jack Ross. In replacing him, Lynden Gooch may have been favourite to start today, but a slight hamstring concern makes him a doubt for this afternoon.
Ross can turn either to Duncan Watmore or Lewis Morgan. Both have started recently and both would offer pace and drive to Sunderland’s attack. Purely to continue his own recovery, I suspect Watmore may get the nod, having been carefully managed in the past week or so.
Aiden McGeady will continue to press down the left. Ten goals and six assists so far this season has made this his best goal-scoring season to date. Inside of the Irishman, George Honeyman’s ability to play an advanced midfield role, whilst dropping into a solid midfield three provides Ross with flexibility and leadership.
Striker: Will Grigg
Will Grigg’s penalty against Gillingham both restored our lead and relieved some of the pressure on League One’s record signing. Not scoring for a couple of games should never be a major cause for concern, especially having just joined a new side and still settling in, but such is the pressure on both the club and the striker that his goal would have taken the pressure off. Aiden McGeady’s selfless act of allowing Grigg to take the ball was also a sign of the strong team bond that now exists within the group.
Hopefully the team can continue to work together to get the best out of Grigg and see this as the first of many. McGeady suggested a return of 10 or 15 goals, but with 15 games to play this may be optimistic. Anything Grigg can contribute should be applauded but it the regular return of three points the team need to ensure from hereon in.