For Sunderland to be competitive we need to establish the players who make up the spine of our team, and that must be done quickly. In goal we’ve got Jon McLaughlin, and by signing Coventry City captain Jordan Willis we’ve added a quick, aggressive defender who will address our issues with winning aerial balls and commanding our back line.
But as you move further and further up the field it’s clear we still have some issues to iron out. In the centre of the park I couldn’t tell you who our best player is, and up front we have three strikers with very little between them in terms of goal return and ability at this level.
Ultimately, we’re now heading into the season looking for players to step up and grab the chance to claim their place in the team with both hands.
These seem to be the most common pairings we've seen - which one would you start v Oxford? #SAFC— Roker Report (@RokerReport) July 24, 2019
Yesterday we threw out a question to our fellow Sunderland supporters, asking them who should be Sunderland’s first choice midfield pairing going into the new season.
Obviously, since then news has emerged that we’re close to capturing George Dobson from Walsall - which could skew things - but ultimately there’s a deep pool of central midfielders currently at the club with only two spots to compete for.
What does that say? Well, it suggests that despite making numerous additions to our squad over the last year or so we’re still searching for our best two in the middle of the park.
And that is perhaps backed up by the results of our poll, at least when pondering where the minds of the Sunderland supporters are at currently. Whilst the pairing of Max Power and Dylan McGeouch came out on top with around 30% of the votes, the other three options all took nearly a quarter of the votes each - like Jack Ross, the fans are also pretty much undecided on which of our midfielders are actually the best of the bunch.
Before thinking about who would be the best pair it’s important to understand what role these players will be expected to play in the new system that Jack Ross appears to have implemented during pre-season. Playing with an extra man in defence and wing backs with two number tens filling the gap between midfield and attack actually leads to the simplification of the game-plan that our central midfielders are asked to deploy.
Their job is mainly to sit deeper, collect the ball quickly from the back three and distribute it to the creative and wide players. In effect we create an overload in attack, and an overload in defence. Whilst there are obvious positives to playing in this way, it means your water-carriers in the centre of the park have to do a lot of running, and have to stay incredibly disciplined.
With that in mind it’s perhaps unexpected that Dylan McGeouch’s name is one that is being mentioned readily as someone who fans want to see given a starting role this season.
Of all the midfield players we have he’s perhaps the one you could attach the mantle of ‘water-carrier’ to, as he seems most comfortable when working hard for the defence and getting the ball forward to the technically proficient attackers quickly. His game is all about being a team player and, as such, you won’t see him score many goals but your team won’t concede too many either as he’s very much committed to ensuring we leave very few gaps for the opposition to exploit.
In years gone by you probably could have described Grant Leadbitter in a similar vein, although his first run as a Sunderland player saw him play an ‘all-action’ role whereby he did the dirty work off the ball and looked to provide goals from midfield on it. As he’s grew older Grant has stepped back further and further, and now aged 33 is much more comfortable distributing the ball from deep. He’s not got the legs to get about the pitch in the way he used to be able to, so when he plays you need to ensure he’s paired with someone who can do much of his running for him if he’s going to be effective.
Contrast that to the youthful exuberance of Ethan Robson and it’s easy to see why the as-yet untested academy graduate is such a popular choice amongst supporters. Now finally at an age where he can make an impact in the first-team, Robson plays in the fashion that Leadbitter used to when he was a younger man. He’s good in the air, loves a tackle and makes late runs into the box which make him both a useful offensive and defensive weapon.
Max Power is a similar player to Robson, but older and with a lot more experience. He’s vocal and has leadership qualities that the others perhaps don’t possess, but his all-round game is lacking in substance and he often flatters to deceive in games. Yet, in a system like this which could get the best from him, Power could be crucial. The two League One promotions that he has to his name cannot be ignored - the proof is there that this player has been a vital component in league-winning teams before.
The signing of George Dobson adds spice into the mix because an already over-crowded position has grown even further. With just two spots to compete for we’ve now got a situation where it feels like someone must leave.
Power and Leadbitter were only signed in January, McGeouch had offers from Scotland but turned them down as he wanted to stay, and Robson is incredibly highly thought of and has been earmarked for a big role in the team.
Dobson isn’t coming just to make up the numbers and is Sunderland’s first-choice midfield target this summer. He’s young, talented and perhaps has proven in his career so far that he’s durable and capable of playing a lot of games - something you can’t necessarily attribute to Robson, McGeouch or Leadbitter, who all have a history of picking up small, niggling injuries that distrupt the way they’re able to settle into a team.
Time will ultimately tell us just who Jack Ross sees as his first-choice pairing in midfield, but the biggest indication is likely to come when we take on Heerenveen on Saturday night.
Whatever the case may be, one of our objectives in those opening four or five games should be to establish our pairings all over the park and look to build on them. All good teams establish the spine of their team relatively early in the season, and in such a pivotal position it’s key that Sunderland do that from the off in midfield.
There’s no room for sentiment - let’s get behind two players that we feel not only have the legs to get around and impact the team, but also are durable enough to play in the majority of games this season without breaking down regularly and hampering our fortunes.
Even despite having a well-stocked midfield, that will be key.