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Talking Points: Should Jack Baldwin and Luke O’Nien be reinstated to Sunderland’s side v Oxford?

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Sunderland won a vital three points against Wimbledon, but elements of the performance have us wondering whether Jack Ross might make alterations to his side when we face Oxford on Saturday.

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Invaluable McGeady

Throughout the game, Aiden McGeady was the focal point of Sunderland’s attacking system, with most offensive phases focused down the left-hand side. However, this was achieved with varying success, as he often slowed play down far too much and largely failed to find any way through a packed Wimbledon defence.

On his day he is arguably the most technically proficient attacking player in the whole of League One, and once again a pure moment of magic, almost out of nowhere, proves that he is not a luxury, but an invaluable part of out strikeforce.

Grant Leadbitter played a decent but defensible ball in behind the Wimbledon defence. McGeady pounced onto the loose ball after a poor defensive gaff, faded to the left, shifted his weight and stepped out to the right before unleashing an unstoppable drive into the far corner of Joe McDonnell’s net.

This moment of magic changed the game at the drop of a coin.

Despite stuttering offensively over the last six weeks, this superior individual quality is what holds the team apart as the title race really starts to take shape.

McGeady with a moment of magic
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Defensive Issues

While Jimmy Dunne was impressive aerially, both he and Tom Flanagan were naive and positionally poor throughout. A goal-shy and generally poor Wimbledon attack caused the pair problems, despite Ross essentially lining up with six more defensively-minded players from the outset.

Jack Baldwin is prone to committing one mistake per-game, but I believe he is the best central defender at the club.

For Oxford at the weekend, I would like to see Dunne keep his place. He has been under fire since the game for his performance, but winning 22 out of 29 defensive actions is no mean feat - he was much busier than Flanagan. On top of this, he won 15 of 18 aerial duels faced (83%) and was trusted with the task of man-marking the anonymous Kwesi Appiah. In truth neither he nor Flanagan performed particularly well.

Despite the clean sheet, we relied upon Jon McLaughlin far too much once again and defensive issues still exist. Baldwin needs to be re-instated to the starting line-up, or, perhaps a back-three could be the perfect tonic.

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O’Nien’s Layers

To be quite honest, I was rather disappointed with one part of Jack Ross’ team selection on Saturday - central midfield. I’m a fan of Max Power, but he has been out of sorts since being sent off against Walsall (which was subsequently rescinded) and clearly it lies on his mind at all times during his regular play.

However, at home to the club cast adrift at the bottom of the league, who have conceded seven goals in their last two league games, is it really necessary to line-up with a very deep defensive midfield pivot?

Clearly Ross wanted to ensure we would dictate play, something we have largely struggled to do effectively this season, but against Wimbledon we would certainly dictate large swathes regardless. They came to sit deep and counter as directly and quickly as possible.

Adam Matthews needed to return to right-back, he is a natural defender and has been arguably our best performing defender this season. Ross himself has discussed the decision to leave Luke out since:

Luke’s really good performances have come out of position.

I think it was important to get Adam back in that area because he’s the best full-back we have at the club, in terms of that area.

It was between George and Luke as to who was going to play in that attacking midfield role and you could have made a good argument for either of them. George has been a miss for us because he brings a whole load of different things to the game.

The good thing with those two in particular is if they both play or one of them plays, you know what you will get from them every single time and they both showed that. When Luke came off the bench he made a good contribution as well.

O’Nien has showed many layers this season; leading the midfield line against Man City U21s, working like a terrier from defensive midfield, proving to be an accomplished defender from right-back, doing a job filling-in out wide, and on Saturday, being a super-sub injecting life and pace into a tiring midfield.

For me, he needs to start alongside Honeyman and Leadbitter, and Ross has even alluded to as much above. Allow Grant to dictate play from deep while Honeyman and O’Nien push up high and typically cover every blade of grass on either side of him.

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Promising Debuts

Grant Leadbitter, Lewis Morgan and Kaz Sterling all made their Sunderland debut’s on Saturday after moving in the closing throes of the transfer window. Morgan was a late addition to the starting lineup after Lynden Gooch unexpectedly pulled out, and his class on the ball was impressive.

Although the young Scot looks like a player who has only started twice so far this season, Ross is clearly a fan, and reiterated as much after the game:

Lewis was an able deputy and the way it worked, it was brilliant for him to get the opportunity to start the game.

He can be pleased and supporters will have seen what he will bring.

I thought he actually got better as the game wore on, he has not played a lot this season as well.

Morgan will definitely take time to really get going due to the low number of minutes he has received since moving to Celtic from Ross’ former club St. Mirren, but I’d expect Jack to once again get the best out of him. That being said, his turn of pace, genuine two-footed ability, wonderful close control and sheer knack to beat a man were all on show on Saturday.

Leadbitter has rightfully stolen many of the headlines over the wage drop he has taken to return to his boyhood club, yet, aside from signing a player genuinely committed and passionate for the shirt, he is a class above. ‘Boro fans love him and generally consider Leadbitter one of their more talented midfielders, but one who does not fit into Tony Pulis’ desired system and preferred style of player. He drops down into League One as one of the best - yet will be naturally rusty having not played in the league at all from November.

As a result, he started off slow and made a few defensive gaffes and astray passes largely due to a lack of match sharpness and poor judgement stemming from this. Yet as the game wore on, his influence and ability to dictate play from deep began to improve, and it was a breath of fresh air to see a Sunderland central midfielder win successive second balls in a midfield battle.

Kaz Sterling replaced Charlie Wyke late on, and very much reminds me of Maja towards the end of last season. He is aged just 20 and has barely played any first-team football at all, and it shows. Despite picking up two impressive positions and making numerous runs in behind (highlighting his incredible pace), he was very naïve and got dragged into many needless tussles with battle-hardened League One defenders.

He was too static and looked a bit lightweight, but that is to be expected. Yet, late on his role running into the channels, stretching their defence and causing a general nuisance was an important one as Wimbledon tired.