Jack Ross made just one change following his side’s four-two win at home to Gillingham in midweek - Duncan Watmore replacing Chris Maguire who was ruled out for 6-8 weeks with a broken bone in his leg suffered early in that game.
Sunderland lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Jon McLaughlin, Luke O’Nien, Tom Flanagan, Jimmy Dunne and Reece James making up an unchanged back five. Grant Leadbitter and Lee Cattermole continued their partnership in midfield, with George Honeyman starting on the right and Aiden McGeady on the left. Duncan Watmore started in support of Will Grigg up front.
Graham Coughlan made three changes to his Bristol Rovers side which did Sunderland a favour by drawing one-all away at Portsmouth in midweek. Alex Rodman, Ollie Clarke and Gavin Reilly came in for Joe Partington, Ed Upson and Alex Jakubiak.
The home side lined up in a traditional 4-4-2 formation. Jack Bonham started in goal, with James Clarke, Tom Lockyer, Tony Craig and Tareiq Holmes-Dennis making up a flat back four. Alex Rodman, Ollie Clarke, Abumere Ogogo and Liam Sercombe made up the midfield with Jonson Clarke-Harris and Gavin Reilly starting up front.
Sunderland looked after the ball much better
With the experienced head of Lee Cattermole and Grant Leadbitter operating in front of the back four, and George Honeyman regularly drifting inside from his starting position on the right, Sunderland were able to control the game for most of the 90 minutes.
Whereas in recent months Sunderland’s central defenders have often hit long, hopeful balls into the channels. However, at the Memorial Stadium Cattermole and Leadbitter gave Flanagan and Dunne an easy option when playing out from the back.
This of course led to better ball retention, and not only contributed to Sunderland’s improvement going forward but allowed Jack Ross’ team to exert more control over the game and helped secure a clean sheet.
This is not to say that Sunderland played a completely short passing game on Saturday, since Leadbitter especially was open to playing a long ball for Watmore or Grigg to run onto, but crucially these balls were only played when they were on, and were long passes rather than hopeful punts.
Will Grigg - more than just a goalscorer
When Sunderland splashed out up to £4 million pounds to bring last season’s league one top scorer to the Stadium of Light many, myself included, felt like the former Wigan man was a straight swap for Josh Maja - one poacher out, another in.
In reality, what we have seen from the Northern Irish international in his first five games for the club has shown that he has much more to offer than just his goals.
Will Grigg has genuinely led the line for Sunderland, showing that he is at home in the lone striker role. He runs the channels well, is happy to drop in and hold the ball up and offers a real threat in behind the opposition’s defence.
Grigg’s willingness to run in behind, something which was a weakness in Maja’s game, opens the final third of the pitch up wonderfully for Sunderland’s creative midfielders to influence the game more frequently - something Aiden McGeady especially has used to full effect.
The goals will come, but even without them Will Grigg has had a positive impact on this Sunderland team.
Lewis Morgan could be Jack Ross’ secret weapon
In the end Sunderland ran out comfortable 2-0 winners against a clearly inferior Bristol Rovers side, and in truth it could have been five if Charlie Wyke had put away three chances fellow substitute Lewis Morgan created for him.
After coming on with just over twenty minutes left in the game, and Sunderland already two-nil up, Morgan used his skill and pacae to wonderful effect, beating the Bristol left back three times, dribbling to the edge of the box and setting up Charlie Wyke, three times.
The cameo was Morgan’s best performance since an impressive debut against AFC Wimbledon, and can be viewed as the talisman of Jack Ross’ St. Mirren throwing his hat in the ring to replace Chris Maguire in the starting line up.
Whatever happens, having a player with as much quality as Lewis Morgan on the bench is an advantage Sunderland possess over many of their promotion rivals - and an advantage which could make all the difference in the last few months of the season.