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Who should be Sunderland’s first choice central midfield pairing this season, and why?

Dylan McGeouch, Ethan Robson, Max Power, Grant Leadbitter, Luke O’Nien, George Honeyman and Elliot Embleton - which two of these men should be Sunderland’s first choice central midfield pairing going into the new season?

Gillingham v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images

Q: In Sunderland’s new system we play with two central midfielders. Taking everything into consideration, who would be your first choice pairing going into the new season, and why?

Gav says...

It’s pretty clear, to me at least, that despite possessing a large amount of squad members that can play in the centre of the park we are lacking another player with height, mobility and the ability to score you goals with their late runs into the box.

That said, there are five and a half weeks left before the transfer window closes and we’ve got time to put that right. What Jack Ross has got at his disposal right now should be more than enough to start the season with, even despite the fact he’d probably like to have added George Dobson to his ranks by this stage of our preparations.

Each of the midfielders that we do have, have their own individual qualities - and in Jack Ross’s new system, in which he plays with two in the centre of the park, we have to consider which two players have the attributes that compliment each other the most.

Last season I felt we often struggled playing a two but that was because we largely tried to operate with Grant Leadbitter and Lee Cattermole, two good players who perhaps haven’t got the legs to get around like they used to be able to. Now, however, we have the youth of Ethan Robson to call upon, and I think he’s set for a pivotal role in the side.

Robson is tall, confident, good with the ball at his feet, adept at picking it up quickly from the defenders and turning, is relatively quick and isn’t scared of making late runs forward to try and score goals. He’s also a good free kick and corner taker, which helps, and is the tallest midfielder in our current group of players.

He’s obviously young and inexperienced, but he’s a player that the club have a lot of faith in and he’s expected to get a big chance under Jack Ross this season.

Taking all of Robson’s best characteristics into consideration, I’d look to pair him with another player who is not only good on the ball, but also good at getting around the park quickly and winning us back possession effectively - Dylan McGeouch.

I felt McGeouch was unfortunate last season in that when he was playing his best football he either got dropped for no reason, or picked up an injury that sent him right back to the bottom of the pile. Now, with Lee Cattermole out of the picture, I see no reason why McGeouch can’t make an impact in this side. Sure, he won’t score you many goals, but he plays a very specific role and in a two you need your central midfielders to be defensively disciplined and able to get the ball forward to the wide players quickly.

Robson and McGeouch are the most mobile of the central players we have, and if Sunderland’s new three-at-the-back system is going to work we have to move away from playing safe, slow football. Our build up play has to be quicker, and at the fulcrum of that must be a central midfield pairing that are all-action and can keep their heads when necessary.

Sunderland Pre-Season Training Session Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Tom Atkinson says...

The central midfield pairing is a really difficult decision for Jack Ross to make. His decision to play a back three with wing-backs capable of dropping in to make a back five perhaps suggests that Ross won’t be relying on a midfielder to shield a defence that struggled at times last season.

As such, Sunderland need a midfield duo capable of harrying when out of possession and being efficient with the ball when in possession.

Sunderland have good depth to choose from and, realistically, I think Leadbitter and McGeouch will be vying for one spot whilst Robson and Power will be battling for the other. Sammut looks to be a good reserve option and so too are O’Nien and Honeyman - though they’ll likely be utilized in other roles.

Leadbitter has been trusted more than McGeouch this summer, so I’d expect Leadbitter to be the first choice option in the middle unless McGeouch does something special against Heerenveen this weekend.

The other central slot will likely go to Robson - partly due to the fact that Power is just recovering from injury. Though, to be fair to Robson, he has shown glimpses of real promise this pre-season and he also adds some much needed athleticism to the middle of the park.

The midfield duo of Leadbitter and Robson would be an impressive pairing for League One. Both have great vision and an impressive range of passing. Sunderland could benefit if Robson plays slightly ahead of Leadbitter and moves forward with the ball - something we lacked last season.

Subsequently either Luke O’Nien or Chris Maguire in the 10 role would also be of great help. Last season we relied on McGeady to provide our creative spark, we need to share the load this season - Robson (and Power when fit) supporting one of the aformentioned could be just what we need to help create opportunities for our forwards who struggled to find opportunities in the second half of last season.

South Shields v Sunderland: Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

James Nickels says...

One of the most pressing needs in a 3-4-3 is the ability to dictate the middle of the park. Often, the central midfield pairing will get outnumbered and are susceptible to being overwhelmed on the counter - especially when the wing-backs and two 10s push as highly as ours have in pre-season.

With this in mind, my first choices would be McGeouch and Robson. The pair possess athleticism, keen ability to pick a pass and are both good at holding onto the ball, recycling play and dictating the centre of the park.

Though in truth we’ve seen little of Ethan Robson, you’d hope hes improved in his ability to hold the ball and working in tight spaces since his sporadic championship appearances.

Against Carlisle last year & Hull, Wolves and Fulham in the Championship - he excelled. Particularly against Seb Larsson, David Meyler and particularly Ruben Neves. However, in many others (Brentford away, Birmingham at home) he looked like a bit of a rabbit in headlights - struggling to retain possession, impose himself on the game and particularly unable to get his foot on the ball and show his keen passing ability.

But small signs seem to show he has learned from his half-season loan at Dundee, and Ross is a big admirer.

Grant Leadbitter could just as easily come into either position, and perhaps I’m biased for the aforementioned pair due to a criminal lack of opportunity on the pitch last season. Both have spoke out in the press regarding their Hope’s for this season, with both interviews prompted by the club itself. So clearly Ross has put a big faith of confidence into the pair.

South Shields v Sunderland: Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

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