Goalkeeper: Jon McLaughlin
With four clean sheets in five games and back-to-back home wins, Sunderland return to the Stadium of Light with the clear intention of taking three points from our visitors today. Jon McLaughlin will be boosted by his recent form and will be looking to improve on our record against the Saddlers this season.
Three games, two draws and a defeat is the record so far. Having conceded four times in those games, the Scotland international will be looking to build on Tuesday’s shut-out at Oakwell to give the attacking players every chance to secure victory this afternoon.
Defence: O’Nien, Baldwin, Dunne, James
Jack Ross spoke of his thoughts regarding the defence this week and particularly relocating Luke O’Nien from right-back to a more advanced midfield role. Ross commented how the defence has become a settled unit, reflected in the emergence of clean sheets once more. Further, he pointed to the fact O’Nien has put in several Man-of-the-Match performances at full-back and how he performed well against Mamadou Thiam, one of Barnsley’s dangermen, on Tuesday evening.
Therefore, it remains unlikely that Adam Matthews will be returning to his favoured position anytime soon. Reece James returned to training this week and puts added pressure on the Welshman for the left back role. When fit, James seems to be Ross’ first choice, having seen off the challenge from Bryan Oviedo and Denver Hume earlier in the season. Matthews struggled at times on Tuesday and the opportunity to bring balance back to the defence may prompt Ross into the change today.
In defence Jack Baldwin was outstanding in midweek. Fans have pointed to his errors prior to being dropped, but time on the sidelines has clearly reignited the former Peterborough captain’s form. Jimmy Dunne may be battling with his usual partner, Tom Flanagan, for the second spot but Ross is likely to stick with the partnership that kept Barnsley at bay on Tuesday evening.
Defensive Midfield: Grant Leadbitter & Lee Cattermole
Sunderland’s upturn in form coincided with the Grant Leadbitter-Lee Cattermole partnership establishing themselves in the heart of midfield. As the season enters its final stretch, the two experienced players will need to drive their team over the line.
On Tuesday an early booking perhaps contributed to a quieter performance from Leadbitter, whilst the weather certainly limited his passing range. Today the former Academy product will be hoping to impose himself and win the midfield battles.
Cattermole has a decent scoring record at home all of a sudden. On Tuesday the skipper had one of Sunderland’s few chances and is clearly enjoying a role that brings him closer to the opposition goal. Can Catts make it a hat-trick of goals in successive home matches today?
Attacking Midfield: Morgan, Power, McGeady
Jack Ross sprang something of a surprise in his attacking line-up at Oakwell. Lynden Gooch replaced Lewis Morgan in a like-for-like swap, whilst Max Power was pushed forward into the number ten role that George Honeyman has recently played.
Power’s relationship with Will Grigg was perhaps behind Ross’ thinking, yet the best chance of the game fell to Power himself. Breaking clear and battling with the central defender to reach the ball first, Power couldn’t bend his shot past the on-rushing keeper.
However this, and other promising passages of play, may be enough for Ross to stick with him in that role today.
Aiden McGeady was clearly our main threat again in midweek and any disappointment at missing out on the cut for the Republic side named by Mick McCarthy may be taken out on Walsall today.
On the opposite flank Lewis Morgan will be hoping for an immediate recall. His substitute appearance was arguably better than Gooch’s display and the Celtic foward should be in Ross’ thinking as a possible second change.
Walsall have proved a tough nut for Sunderland to crack this season, but the likes of Leadbitter and Morgan may finally tip the scales in favour of a home win.
Striker: Will Grigg
Ross has praised January signing Will Grigg in terms of his overall game. Commenting that Tuesday was a quiet one by the Irishman’s standards, both Ross and Grigg will be hoping Sunderland create better chances for their striker today. Two goals so far with a minimum of eleven games to play means Grigg still has time to end the season with a decent haul to his name.
Walsall will be tough opponents today who need the points for another reason this afternoon. Sitting just two points above the relegation places, Dean Keates will no doubt hope his defence can frustrate the home side, and Grigg in particular, to leave Wearside with at least a point.
It’s up to Sunderland to ensure Grigg sens them home disappointed.