GK: Jon McLaughlin
Who else? Alright, that’s probably a little harsh on Lee Burge - the newly-signed former Coventry ‘keeper has looked really good in pre-season, but it’s going to take a little more than that for him to dislodge the man who many fans felt was our best player last season from his spot as first choice goalie.
McLaughlin has played the last few pre-season games and looks sharp. We need him to have another great season if we’re going to get promoted, and success could very well hinge on him staying fit and staying in form - he’s that good.
There will be a lot of focus on our goalkeeper being able to play out from the back in Jack Ross’s new system, and it’s in the kicking department where I feel Jon is at his weakest. That said, he’s more than capable of adapting and, like a fine wine, he seems to improve with age.
DCR: Conor McLaughlin, DC: Willis, DCL: Flanagan
The biggest tactical tweak made by Jack Ross this summer has been in his defence.
Now playing with a back three, the Sunderland manager has set his team up to be more defensively solid - a big sore point with supporters who watched the team capitulate with regularity due to the ineptness of their defence last season.
The addition of Conor McLaughlin has been a welcome one, and in the Northern Ireland international it feels like we’ve made a signing which has been well-thought out and researched. He’s a good age, fits the profile of the type of defender that we’ve been lacking, and has experience at international level of playing on the right of a back three.
Similarly, the signing of Jordan Willis has excited supporters who have been longing for a quick, aggressive central defender to walk through the doors for a number of years now.
The ex-Coventry captain is the smallest central defender in our squad, but don’t let that fool you - he’s got a ridiculous leap and wins the majority of aerial duels he gets involved in, even when up against players who are four or five inches taller than he is.
On the left hand side of the three is likely to be Tom Flanagan, someone who has it all to prove this season. Flanagan played at left back in the Championship for Burton Albion and is the one defender we possess who is fairly comfortable on his left foot. Could this be the ideal role for Flanagan in our team? Only time will tell, but he has to play well this afternoon as the jury is still out with many supporters over his suitability for a regular starting berth.
RWB: O’Nien CM: Leadbitter CM: Power LWB: Hume
Three of these four selections were incredibly hard for me to make. In truth, it’s very difficult trying to predict a team for the first game of the season, and we have a number of players in each position who could all make a viable case for starting today.
At right wing back I’ve elected to opt for Luke O’Nien, mainly because he made the right back slot his own last season and at least deserves a chance to prove himself as worthy once again. It’s pretty much a straight shootout between O’Nien and Lynden Gooch, and I think that whilst Gooch has looked decent at wing back in pre-season he’s got to earn his spot back in the side. The US international was disappointing for most of last season and needs to regain the faith of both the supporters and manager before becoming a regular starter again this season.
On the left is a straightforward and obvious choice - Denver Hume is the only left back we have, so he’s guaranteed to start the game.
In the middle it’s a complete lottery yet again. Ethan Robson is ruled out through injury and George Honeyman has left for pastures new, so the pool we have to pick from has emptied slightly, but we still have a plethora of options and I think that Jack Ross might go down the route of playing experience over youth.
Grant Leadbitter is the most likely candidate to replace Honeyman as first team captain and I expect that he’ll start alongside Max Power in a slightly more defensive midfield two than I think most fans would perhaps like to see.
George Dobson and Dylan McGeouch have just as good a chance of starting though, so it’ll be interesting to see what direction we take.
RAM: Watmore ST: Grigg LAM: Embleton
Jack Ross confirmed in his press conference on Thursday that Charlie Wyke would miss out this afternoon through injury, and that whilst Aiden McGeady and Chris Maguire are available, they’re still aiming to achieve full fitness.
That opens up a number of opportunities for players to really stake their claim for a regular place in the side - none more so than Elliot Embleton. The England U20 international is highly thought of on Wearside and has looked like one of Sunderland’s best players in pre-season, and with McGeady unlikely to start he’s expected to begin the game in his place.
On the right I’ve opted for Duncan Watmore, whose pace and direct running was a real worry for the Belenenses defence over in Portugal. We’re going to need an outlet when under pressure - and that’s exactly what Watmore is.
Up top I’ve gone with Will Grigg, though that’s only because I’m trying to second guess what Jack Ross will do. The former Wigan man has done nothing yet to show Sunderland fans why he was worth shelling out such a huge sum of money on. But, with Wyke out and McNulty not perhaps completely up to speed yet, it’s highly likely that he’ll get the opportunity to show why he’s he man to lead the line and score the goals we’ll need to get ourselves promoted this season.