After a 2-0 win over South Shields last week, and then a 0-0 draw with Benfica B on Thursday night, Sunderland will now look to ramp up their preparations for the first game of the season in just two weeks with Oxford, hopefully picking up a victory this evening against Primeira Liga side Belenenses in Portugal.
Jack Ross has experimented with a three-at-the-back system and it appears that’s the route he’ll be taking tactically going into the new season, so further experimenting up against credible opponents this evening should provide us with a good barometer of where we’re at - and, more importantly, whether we’re ready to roll it out and unleash it upon the other sides in League One.
State of play...
Sunderland head into this game knowing their chances to sharpen things up ahead of the new season are running out. The win at Mariners Park got us off to a good start in pre-season, but the toothless nature of our goalless draw with Benfica B on Thursday certainly indicates that there’s still work to be done with regards to Sunderland’s tactical setup.
Belenenses finished in a respectable ninth place in the Portuguese top flight last season and will be no pushovers, the kind of credible opponents that Jack Ross will be pleased that his side can face as they look to prove their sharpness and ability.
Their manager, Silas, will be pleased that his side got their pre-season campaign off to a good start with a 3-1 win over second tier Mafra a fortnight ago, but not so pleased as they followed that up with a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Lusitânia FC last Saturday.
It will be interesting to see how his side match up against a Sunderland squad who have perhaps had a little more time to get themselves into shape.
View from the opposition...
With Silas’ side gearing up for another season in the Primeira Liga, Belenenses will relish pitting their wits against Sunderland as they look to have a more stable season than the one they had last time out.
Belenenses were formed as part of a breakaway from two clubs in 2018 and finished slap bang in the middle of the league in ninth last term, with their season suffering as a result of all the goings on off the field.
Amongst their ranks are former Sheffield Wednesday player Vincent Sasso, ex-Sunderland keeper Mika and former Nottingham Forest man Lica.
Jack Ross Says...
Speaking in the aftermath of the draw with Benfica B, Jack Ross opened up on the mood around the camp and how his players are feeling in the new season:
I don’t want to dwell too much on what goes before - as I say all the time, you can’t affect it - but we were in this same part of the world and where we are now as a squad feels a lot better.
That’s not decrying the ones that were here, but we had to really bring it all together last year. It was a small group, we were light in numbers, there was a lot of uncertainty going around, whereas a lot of these players have been together ( a while) now.
The additions we’ve made I’m really pleased with - Conor, Jordan and Lee have all showed already why we wanted to bring them to the club. We were patient in that regard and they’ve all settled from a personal point of view really well, and then I think they’ve shown already on the pitch what they’ll give us this season.
Then, when asked what he’ll be looking to see in the game with Belenenses, he said:
The same in parts of it, better in other aspects.
We’re trying to be comfortable with another system as well which will gives us that option to play it next season. That takes time to bed in properly but I think we’re getting better at it.
Some bits from tonight we need to improve upon as well, it’s just continuing to be more ruthless at both ends of the park. Tonight, ruthless enough in terms of keeping a clean sheet defensively then looking to capitalise on opportunities when you make them.
That comes with increased games and increased training as sharpness grows, so yeah - a little bit of repetition from tonight, and then again looking for improvement because you want each and every pre-season game to bring an improvement and get closer to what you expect for the first game of the season.
We have no new injury worries and are likely to try and get as many minutes as we possibly can into each and every player ahead of the closing game of pre-season next weekend at the Stadium of Light against Heerenveen.
The most interesting aspect of the pre-season games so far has been the formation and shape Jack Ross has opted for. He’s chopped and changed between numerous adaptations of a system which plays with three central defenders, leaving fans guessing exactly how we’ll set up against Oxford in the season’s opener.
Max Power and Aiden McGeady have travelled with the squad, but with the former not expected to be fit until the season begins we’d be surprised to see him get any minutes on Saturday afternoon. We may see a glimpse of McGeady, but the gut feeling is he may get more pre-season minutes the following weekend against Heerenveen.
George Honeyman hasn’t travelled to Portugal and will remain at home for treatment on a minor knee injury which is only expected to keep him out for a couple of weeks.