Goalkeeper: Jon McLaughlin
Scottish goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin must surely be a contender for Sunderland’s Player of the Year award already. In the past few games, with Sunderland scoring only a single goal, McLaughlin has kept his side in the game.
The clean sheet secured against Wimbledon last week secured all three points and, but for a wonderstrike late in the game at Scunthorpe or a penalty decision for Luton that still has me scratching my head, McLaughlin’s performances may have won us even more points.
Jack Ross made his goalkeeper a key area to strengthen in the summer and McLaughlin’s performances have never let anyone down. Surely one of, if not the best, keeper in League One.
Defence: Matthews, Flanagan, Dunne, James
Jack Baldwin must be wondering what he’s done wrong to be sitting on the bench in recent weeks. The former Peterborough captain was another key signing and been a consistent performer in the heart of defence. Yet young Jimmy Dunne has come in and looked every inch the part as a strong defender in League One. His aerial success against Wimbledon last week shows the youngster is no push-over and his partnership with Tom Flanagan in recent weeks has kept Sunderland ticking over. Baldwin may have to be patient for a little while longer to regain his place in the side.
Reece James, in contrast, has arguably been Sunderland’s most consistent defender.
Having seen off the challenge from Bryan Oviedo for the left-back shirt, James has continued to play an important role in Jack Ross’ side. An unfortunate own goal against Charlton a month ago has not weighed on his mind and the former Wigan man continues to impress in his first season at the Stadium of Light.
Adam Matthews returned to the side last week and is likely to stay in the team today. Our only natural right-back, Matthews’ return may have appeared somewhat harsh on Luke O’Nien, who impressed whilst covering the role in the Welshman’s absence. However, O’Nien is first and foremost a box-to-box midfielder, so it’s not surprising to see Matthews back on the teamsheet.
Defensive Midfield: Grant Leadbitter & Max Power
Grant Leadbitter made his Sunderland return in last week’s home game against Wimbledon to much applause. The former Academy product has spoken of his homecoming in the last few weeks, but getting on the pitch was always going to be where it mattered. Last weekend Leadbitter ran the midfield from a deep position, providing passes across the park, including the assist for Aiden McGeady’s winning goal. With a week’s recovery and training, much will rest upon his shoulders again today.
Alongside him there is a case for a number of partners. Dylan McGeouch’s ball retention and turnover would be a good compliment to Leadbitter, whilst a deeper role for George Honeyman would provide legs and energy alongside the former Boro man. However, as per last week, Max Power is likely to be chosen ahead of both players to partner Leadbitter once more.
If Will Grigg is, as we expect, ready to make his debut, Power’s presence and understanding of our new striker could be vital in breaking today’s deadlock. Oxford have a decent home record and Power’s knowledge of how to get the best out of Grigg could be a turning point this afternoon.
Attacking Midfield: Morgan, Honeyman, McGeady
Both George Honeyman and Lewis Morgan took to the field last weekend and expectations are they will do so again at Oxford this afternoon. For Honeyman, the returning captain, his presence has been missed in the last month or so. It was, therefore, little surprise that his return coincided with three points and a clean sheet.
Lewis Morgan, meanwhile, was a late change for Lynden Gooch who was given leave to be with his partner at the birth of their child. The Celtic loanee took his opportunity well and showed a directness and drive that Sunderland fans have not seen for a long time.
Jack Ross made Morgan a key player in his league winning side at St Mirren and indications are the Scottish winger could provide a similar role in Ross’ current Sunderland team. With a week’s training under his belt, it is hoped his teammates use the outlet he provides down the right, rather than telegraphing most of Sunderland’s attacks down the left.
Aiden McGeady showed his quality last week with a superbly taken goal. For all his ability and goal-threat, too often our attacks slow down and become predictable as Sunderland continue to look for the Irishman to provide that spark of creativity.
With the introduction of Morgan and the energy of Honeyman, it is hoped our attack will be more fluid and challenging for opponents in the coming weeks.
Striker: Will Grigg
Jack Ross confirmed that new signing Will Grigg has trained well this week and, barring any reaction, he should be in the matchday squad today.
Charlie Wyke has failed to impress against Luton and Wimbledon and there is a high likelihood that Grigg may come straight in for his debut.
Reunited with former teammates Reece James and Max Power, Grigg will have no problem settling in off the field and it is hoped the presence of the former Wigan trio will help Sunderland to click on the pitch.
The record fee for a League One purchase, Grigg comes with an impressive scoring record at this level and Ross will hope he proves the difference between an automatic promotion place and a spot in the play-offs come May.