Goalkeeper: Jon McLaughlin
Jon McLaughlin was honest in his assessment of Saturday’s results, but is now focussed on the huge fixture that is Barnsley vs Sunderland tonight. McLaughlin said the game at Wycombe did not reach the levels Sunderland now expect but tonight is a chance to put that right.
With 11 games to go, McLaughlin is once more seeking a clean sheet and providing that platform upon which Sunderland - who have scored in every league game this season - can build. Recalling the game earlier in the season where Sunderland ran out 4-2 winners, the Scotland international is calling on his teammates to do the double over the Yorkshire side and make tonight four wins from five games.
Defence: Matthews, Baldwin, Dunne, Oviedo
Jack Ross has spoken of injuries that will disrupt his defence this evening. Reece James left the Wycombe game at half-time due to a groin issue, whilst Tom Flanagan was taken off with concussion near the end of the game. Both defenders will miss the game tonight.
Jack Baldwin will replace Flanagan in the heart of defence and partner Jimmy Dunne tonight. The two central defenders will need to be at their best to halt Barnsley’s progress. The home side extended their unbeaten run to 16 games at the weekend and will go a calendar year undefeated at home if they win or draw this evening.
Replacing James at left-back may be a three way battle. Adam Matthews played well in the role during the recent EFL Trophy semi-final at Bristol Rovers and replaced James against Wycombe on Saturday. Bryan Oviedo has had a week’s training under his belt, whislt youngster Denver Hume was on the bench against Bristol Rovers and took part in the recent U23 game. Both left backs offer natural balance and will challenge Matthews for the spot tonight.
In fact, Matthews may well be asked to play right back and leave Oviedo and Hume to battle it out alone. With George Honeyman substituted following a head injury, Jack Ross has confirmed the captain will miss tonight’s game due to the protocol regarding concussions. In the event, Honeyman may also be suspended due to the red card he collected late in the game. His absence may require Luke O’Nien to be pushed further upfield, into his more natural midfield role, and allow Matthews to return to right-back.
Defensive Midfield: Grant Leadbitter & Lee Cattermole
The defensive midfield partnership of Grant Leadbitter and Lee Cattermole is likely to remain this evening. With George Honeyman missing, one of these is also likely to wear the captain’s armband tonight.
Leadbitter has been in fine form since his return to Wearside, although, like many, his perfomance on Saturday was not up to his usual standards. For Sunderland to come away with a vital win tonight, both he and Cattermole need to win the midfield duels and have Sunderland playing on the front foot.
Cattermole will compete with Max Power for the position tonight, but if, as likely, he gets the nod, the former captain must provide an experienced head in the midst of an intense battle this evening. Were Sunderland to win the gap will be closed to within touching distance, with a game in hand. Lose the game and Barnsley move seven points clear and present a huge mountain to climb, leaving Sunderland potentially facing the play-off lottery. A draw would still favour the home side, but not be so detrimental to Sunderland’s ambitions.
Attacking Midfield: Morgan, O’Nien, McGeady
Jack Ross certainly has a tough decision to make with regards who replaces George Honeyman this evening. Moving a central midfielder into the role may make sense and combat Barnsley’s attempt to dominate the middle of the park. Dylan McGeouch or Max Power are likely candidates, but both play very similar games to Grant Leadbitter and Lee Cattermole. Can any of those four provide the attacking intent Honeyman offers?
Perhaps it’s better to bring an attacking midfielder into the more central role. Certainly Chris Maguire may have been tailor-made for this game had he not been out with a leg fracture. Could Aiden McGeady move inside? That may limit the Irishman’s creativity and goal-threat and he wouldn’t be the one tracking back, as Honeyman does.
Maybe Lewis Morgan or Lynden Gooch could adop the mantle? Maybe, like McGeady, that would ask more of them than is their natural, attacking game.
Perhaps the most obvious choice is Luke O’Nien. Moving the current right-back into midfield achieves the dual result of giving the former Wycome man his more natural box-to-box role as a like-for-like replacement for Honeyman, whilst bringing in a natural defender in Adam Matthews.
Striker: Will Grigg
It is hoped that Barnsley will look to secure three points this evening to both avenge the 4-2 defeat earlier in the season and to extend their lead over Sunderland in the race to return to the Championship. If they approach the game in such a manner, rather than looking to safeguard a point to mainatin the current gap, then Sunderland may find that tactic plays to their strengths.
In Will Grigg Sunderland have a top quality striker who can find the net at this level with regularity. His goal against Bristol Rovers in the Checkatrade semi-final proved what he can do with a little space. If Sunderland can find themselves competing in a more open game than was the case on Saturday, then Grigg may find chances come his way.
If Sunderland are to secure the points and close the gap, getting the best out of Grigg is essential this evening. Playing on the front foot or counter-attacking at pace will be key if Grigg is to find to add to his goals in Sunderland colours tonight.