Goalkeeper: Jon McLaughlin
In the summer Jack Ross made the signing of a goalkeeper his immediate priority. Granted, Ross had to focus on a lot of areas with only Academy midfielder Ethan Robson nailing his colours to the proverbial mast, but identifying a shot-stopper with the right attributes to launch a promotion campaign at the first time of asking was Ross’ number one aim.
Perhaps he had heard the calamity of the previous season where the signings of Jason Steele, Robbin Ruiter and Lee Camp had cost Sunderland more points than they had saved. Perhaps it was just Ross’ way of building the core of a team down its spine. Either way, the signing of former Hearts keeper McLaughlin was a masterstroke.
The Scotland international is the only player to have started every league game this season. His saves have ensured Sunderland have lost only two games all season. For all the 17 draws are used as a statistic, it’s more likely that a high number of those games would have fallen into the Defeat column were it not for McLaughlin.
On Tuesday McLaughlin was at it again with a number of key saves to ensure Sunderland gained a point. Having moved into second place, now is the time for the team to cement their place and ensure promotion. No-one will have earned it more than McLaughlin, should the table in May read the same as it does today.
Defence: O’Nien, Baldwin, Dunne, Oviedo
Against his former side Tom Flanagan had one of those evenings I bet he wish he could forget. Having lost possession on the halfway line, Sunderland’s flanks were exposed as Luke O’Nien was providing attacking options as the home side looked to dominate their opponents. Harness, in acres of space, crossed the ball only for it to deflect off Flanagan for an own goal. His night failed to get much better, with both centre halves prone to mistakes and Flanagan arguably the worst performer on the night.
Jack Ross now has a clear decision to make for the visit of Coventry. With an outside chance of making the play-offs, the Sky Blues will have looked at the approach Burton took and may take heart when attacking the core of Sunderland’s defence. Does Ross show faith in his pairing or bring Jimmy Dunne back into the fold? Jack Baldwin has spoken with great admiration of how Ross managed him following his relegation to the substitute bench earlier in the season and it may be the gaffer has to take a similar approach with Flanagan this weekend.
Luke O’Nien continues to perform well in the right back spot and has provided an outlet for Sunderland’s wide-right player when in attack. Similarly, on Tuesday the restored Bryan Oviedo offered an attacking presence down the left. Ross could retain both full-backs today and take the game to our visitors or restore young Denver Hume as a more cautious, but effective option to left-back.
Perhaps, if Dunne comes in, this will be the only change to the back line.
Midfield: Honeyman, Leadbitter, Power, McGeady
Dylan McGeouch’s return to the side saw the Wearsiders pick up six points on their travels with victories at Accrington and Rochdale following the disappointment of Wembley. The Scottish midfielder looked to be a shoe-in for the league campaign as it reached it’s final month. However, picking up an injury inside the first half hour on Tuesday may have derailed his resurgence in its infancy. Max Power, dropped for the returning Grant Leadbitter, replaced McGeouch and put himself forward to return to the starting XI this afternoon.
Lee Cattermole has remained a slight doubt for today’s game throughout this week but he, like Aiden McGeady, will have been assessed again ahead of today’s game. Both players will be pushing to prove their fitness and start against Coventry. Ross will have to decide who takes McGeouch’s place in the heart of the midfield, whilst also considering if talisman McGeady is fit enough to return.
Having sat out the trip to Rochdale and the crucial game against Burton, Ross will be hoping to call on the Irishman soon. With Lynden Gooch, Chris Maguire and Duncan Watmore all out injured, McGeady’s return would be most welcome.
Maguire had set this game as his target to return from a broken leg but, given a lack of match fitness, his best hope was always from from the bench today. Therefore, the right hand side will see a straight choice between Lewis Morgan and George Honeyman. If McGeady makes it, one of them will sit this one out. My money is on Morgan, with skipper Honeyman operating down the right hand side today.
Strikers: Will Grigg & Charlie Wyke
Playing two up front has reaped seven points from three games. But for the woodwork, that may have been the maximum nine. Charlie Wyke had a great chance from six yards out on Tuesday - a bad miss for Sunderland fans or a great save for Burton fans? Further opportunities came his way and the woodwork, twice, prevented Wyke adding to his strike at Rochdale earlier in the week. However, the endorsements from fans and management team alike will ensure the former Bradford man remains determined to fire Sunderland to promotion as the month progresses.
Will Grigg, on the other hand, had few chances and was withdrawn with a little over 20 minutes to go. Nursing an injury, Jack Ross is keen to keep his top striker in the side during the run-in, but Sunderland need to find a way to help Grigg score the goals to secure victory in the limited time he has on the pitch.
Today will be a big test for the strikers and team as a whole. Three points will keep Sunderland in second spot, perhaps even pulling clear if Barnsley fail to beat midtable Fleetwood Town. However, Ross also knows nothing less than a win today will guarantee the Tykes or Portsmouth remain adrift of the Wearsiders come 5pm.