Goalkeeper: Lee Burge
Following Jon McLaughlin’s late arrival to training this week it’s likely that we’ll see our new signing Lee Burge in between the posts against South Shields. The ex-Coventry stopper was hardly a marquee signing, but you must remember his chances of playing first-team football solely rely on the fitness of our Scottish number one.
Having said that, I think it is highly important to possess a reliable reserve goalkeeper who can perform when called upon. Pre-season provides Burge with the chance to gain the trust of both the fans and his manager.
The last thing we need is a repeat of Jason Steele’s horror show against Celtic two years ago. Also, it is likely Burge will play the majority of our cup games, so it would be ideal if he could begin his Sunderland tenure with a clean sheet and a comfortable performance.
Defenders: McLaughlin, Ozturk, Baldwin, Hume
Bar any major surprises I would expect Sunderland will continue playing with a flat back four. I would expect new signing Conor McLaughlin to debut at right-back following Luke O’Nien’s request to return to midfield. The Northern Irish international appears to be a sensible signing and, like Burge, would benefit from starting with a solid performance.
Tom Flanagan returned late to training meaning it is likely Alim Ozturk will retain his place in the side. After beginning his Sunderland career horrendously Ozturk turned his season around at the latter stage, putting in some excellent performances. The Turk keeps his game very simple focusing on the basics, but I will say the jury is still out on whether he is good enough be a regular started due to his lack of pace and passing ability.
Partnering Ozturk I expect will be Jack Baldwin, who ended the campaign as fourth choice. For me, Baldwin is the best centre half at the club, but he was rightly dropped after several train wreck performances, most notably our 5-4 defeat against Coventry. Pre-season offers Baldwin a clean slate to win back the faith of his manager and to place himself in the running for a first-team place.
At left-back the club’s decision to sell Reece James indicates Denver Hume will be provided with a run as first choice. Hume showed glimpses of his ability last season which was unfortunately cut short by injury. The academy graduate is direct and consistently providing an overlap option. Bryan Oviedo’s involvement with Costa Rica in the Gold Cup means he will miss the match.
Midfielders: O’Nien, Robson, Honeyman
I expect Sunderland to play a 4-3-3 formation which would include one deeper midfielder along with two box to box style midfielders.
In the deeper role I think we’ll see more of Ethan Robson. Another player who has been dealt a poor hand with injuries, Robson enjoyed a productive spell at Dundee which provided him with regular football. I believe Robson offers a different option to what we currently have, he has energy, loves a tackle and has height unlike our current bunch. It would be brilliant to see him have a regular run at starting games to show us what he can do.
After a productive spell at right-back, I expect to see Luke O’Nien return to midfield. A fan favourite, O’Nien plays with his heart on his sleeve, his work rate is incredible, and he is more than capable of scoring goals. I think the twenty-four-year-old would thrive in this position, offering his relentless energy and tenacity to win.
Lastly is the captain, the highly debated George Honeyman. Last season showed us that George is simply not a number ten, he is not creative enough and does not score/assist enough. However, I think Honeyman is much better suited as a box to box midfielder. He works tirelessly and is better suited in a more simple role - defence-splitting passes are just not his game.
Forwards: Watmore, Grigg, Maguire
Now to the men who will hopefully cause havoc!
Isn’t it lovely to finally have Duncan Watmore fit for pre-season? One quality Sunderland really lacked last year was pace on the flanks and that is something that this man can provide. With Aiden McGeady still nursing an injury, Chris Maguire is likely to start on the left.
Up front I expect Will Grigg to get the nod.
Whilst pre-season games are mostly about gaining fitness, scoring goals could be important to how Grigg starts our league campaign after an underwhelming start to life as a Sunderland player. Was he ever fully fit last season? I guess only he will know, but nothing is better than pre-season to get yourself sharp and ready to thrive.