Jack Ross made two changes following a goalless draw with Barnsley on Tuesday night - that result and Barnsley’s draw with Doncaster Rovers on Friday night put promotion back in Sunderland’s hands. Lewis Morgan and Tom Flanagan both returned to the starting eleven in place of Lynden Gooch and Jimmy Dunne.
Sunderland again lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation which is clearly Jack Ross’ prefered shape. Jon McLaughlin started in goal, with Adam Matthews and Luke O’Nien at full back. Tom Flanagan and Jack Baldwin started together for the first time since early January. Lee Cattermole and Grant Leadbitter continued in midfield, with Max Power retaining his place in advanced midfield in the absence of George Honeyman. Aiden McGeady and Lewis Morgan started in the wide positions with Will Grigg alone up front once again.
Walsall, unbeaten against Sunderland this season in three games, made just one change to the side which started their last game; a 3-2 home defeat to Checkatrade finalists Portsmouth. Corey Taylor came in for Morgan Ferrier on the left hand side.
Dean Keates’ side lined up in a 4-3-3 formation, although after his side’s early goal this resembled more of a 4-1-4-1. Liam Roberts started in goal, behind a back four of Nicky Devlin, Dan Scarr, Jon Guthrie and Luke Leahy. George Dobson started at the base of a midfield trio which also contained Liam Kinsella and Joe Edwards. Zeli Ismail and Corey Taylor started on the wings, in support of lone striker, and goalscorer, Josh Gordon.
Early and positive substitutions made a difference
I was critical of Jack Ross substitutions on Tuesday night against Barnsley - as both of Sunderland’s changes were made in the final fifteen minutes.
This was the polar opposite of Saturday’s game, where Jack Ross had made all three of his substitutions with twenty minutes remaining.
Perhaps more importantly, these substitutions made a difference and none more than Charlie Wyke, whose first touch played Max Power’s pass into the path of Will Grigg who finished into the corner with his left foot to score the winner.
It is not just the introduction of Wyke for Morgan which was a positive change, but Lynden Gooch being brought on in place of Lee Cattermole - with Max Power dropping back into a deeper midfield position - showed that Jack Ross was willing to sacrifice a holding midfielder for an attacker in search for a winner.
This first attacking change set the tone for Sunderland to find a winner, and signaled to both the team and the fans that Sunderland were going to go all out to find a way of winning the game - something which came through a little bit of extra quality.
Is Max Power the spark to set Will Grigg ablaze?
Both of Will Grigg’s goals from open play have featured his former Wigan teammate Max Power in the build up - he got the assist with a wonderful reverse pass in the Checkatrade semi-final and it was his ball which Charlie Wyke diverted into the path of Sunderland’s number 22 for the winner against Walsall - and this may suggest that Power could be the key to providing Will Grigg with the ammunition to fire Sunderland to promotion this season.
The only problem with this is who should drop out of the team to accommodate Power. Lee Cattermole scored again on Saturday, and is forming a good partnership with Grant Leadbitter who seems to be the first name on the team sheet. Whilst Power has been starting in place of George Honeyman in the last couple of games, the captain returns from suspension for the game at Wembley and presumably would go straight back into the starting line up.
Of course Honeyman could be shifted wide to keep Power in the team, but this would mean dropping both Morgan and Gooch since Aiden McGeady is probably Sunderland’s best attacking player.
All of this means Power may have to be patient to get his change to rekindle the partnership between himself and Grigg, and hope for an opportunity through injury or suspension - an opportunity which, if he grasps it with both hands, could be the the key to getting the best out of Sunderland’s big-money January signing.
Jack Ross’ decision to settle for a point on Tuesday has been vindicated
As I have just alluded to, Jack Ross’ perceived negative in-game management against Barnsley was criticised by some - myself included - who felt that he should have gone for a winner, and risked losing the game.
However, with promotion now back in our hands it is clear why its Jack Ross who gets paid to make these decisions and the game last midweek was, on reflection, a must not lose rather than a must win.
Again, Jack Ross has shown this same level-headed approach throughout the season - not over reacting to runs of form, good or bad - and putting each game in the greater context of Sunderland’s promotion push.
A point away at Barnsley is a good result in isolation, and the results of this weekend have shown that at the end of the season we may look back and be thankful that Jack Ross chose to preserve a point rather than risked losing.