After our heroics in the Carabao Cup on Wednesday night, Jack Ross’ men return to League One action where they will face Paul Tisdale’s MK Dons at the Stadium of Light on Saturday.
Sunderland will be looking to return to winning ways in the league to bolster our promotion hopes, following two disappointing draws with Rotherham and Bolton. On the other hand, MK Dons sit 15th in the table after an inconsistent start to the season which has seen them beat the likes of Blackpool and Lincoln. The last time the two sides met was in 2013, Sunderland won 4-2 courtesy of goals from: Jozy Altidore, Connor Wickham (2) and Adam Johnson.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to MK Dons fan Liam Connolly to discuss how he expects his team to set up, who we can expect to see play, as well as hearing his opinions on two ex-Dons players who now play for Sunderland.
MC: MK Dons have had a steady start to the season, currently sitting in 15th after winning 4 and losing 5, is the objective for this year simply to stay up after being promoted last season from League Two?
LC: I feel if you asked the players this question you would certainly get a resounding no! The coaching staff and players were all focused on a promotion push first coming back in to the league but a few difficult defeats, accompanied with more injuries to an already small squad may have dampened those ambitions.
For me personally, staying up should not be a difficult task for these group of players whatsoever. I hope it is not the objective but I would not be against a solid mid table finish this season, clear of trouble heading in to April time.
MC: Will Grigg enjoyed a prolific loan spell at MK Dons where he scored 20 league goals in 44 appearances as the club were promoted to the Championship - what were the main reasons behind his excellent form?
LC: When Will was in MK with Karl Robinson, everyone in the club was very much about adopting this all out playing from the back attacking football, that was still very new to lower league football at the time. There was very much the attitude of ‘we are going to score more goals than you, what are you going to do about it?’
That particular season it worked. Robinson instilled belief in a fairly young squad at the time that they could achieve anything if they had the right mindset and belief and that probably did Grigg the world of good, coming off a pretty poor spell the previous season with Brentford.
I only wonder the player Robinson could of made of Grigg if the club spent the £1 million fee offered to them upon promotion to the Championship. Outside of match sharpness, I would say the manager lies at the heart of the issue, which is no new news for Sunderland supporters.
MC: Another ex MK Dons player who has struggled to find consistent form is Tom Flanagan - he was released after only playing one full season with the club in 2015. Were you surprised to see him sign for Sunderland last season?
LC: Yeah. I was surprised considering he was signed to be a staple in that backline. The season referred to was way back when in the 11/12 season which we did finish 5th, but that was seven seasons ago. He did not really impress me much in the Championship with Burton where there was no pressure supposedly and a defence that always looked up against it week in, week out. This alongside the added pressure he speaks about from joining Sunderland could all be a bit too much for him, who knows.
Jack Ross certainly believes in him by giving him the armband. League One as I am sure you all know now is about winning those battles all over the pitch and working hard for those chances, and I was never 100% that Flanagan was suited to that style of football. I feel Flanagan failed at his initial role at the club so now needs to find a way back in, but that seems to be hard for him at the moment.
MC: In Paul Tisdale you have a very experienced manager in the lower leagues of English football. What style of play has he brought in which led to your success last season?
LC: Tisdale and his staff have never been shy about shaking things up on the pitch. The first half of the League Two season saw us operate in a 3-4-3 system, which saw great success. Since then, when the majority of players have been fit, Tisdale has introduced a tactic often used by Chris Wilder at Sheffield United. In a 3/5 back system, we tended to operate a over-lapping centre back system which saw players like Baily Cargill and now Regan Poole join in attacks this season and put in dangerous crosses for runners in to the box, which has been very prevalent this campaign.
The middle of the park has always been the key cog to keeping the system ticking, winning those battles drives the team forward and creates plenty of chances, which explains why our xG numbers were so high. Create enough chances and the probability that a few go in is quite high, in theory at least.
MC: Jack Ross has frequently been criticised by fans for his struggle to find a best eleven and an effective formation - did Tisdale change your team much during your promotion campaign last season?
LC: As mentioned already, Tisdale does enjoy changing elevens and systems but much of it was out of his own hands, this season and last. Tisdale tries to identify the opposition’s weakness and go for it rather than believe in an eleven to get the job done. Sometimes this has come to bite him in the backside but other times has been pure genius.
The dropping of former Don Chuks Aneke was always a conversational one as he was easily a top two player in the league last year but Tis often preferred different approaches.
When change was and has been made, Tisdale has always been open with the fans in making mistakes, am openness that Ross has never seemed to show, at least from my perspective anyway. Tisdale’s change has gotten us this far so we can only continue to have faith in him to carry us forward.
MC: MK Dons were beaten in the Carabao Cup 2-0 by Liverpool on Wednesday but were credited for their performance. What do you think your starting eleven will be on Saturday following that performance?
LC: I reckon the side will look something like this, in a 5-3-2/3-5-2 formation. Nombe should see a rest after playing the full 90 midweek, with Agard coming back in to the fold. After having a not particularly stand out showing from Williams, I could see him being dropped from the ever reliable Russell Martin. Nicholls and Lewington should see returns to the starting eleven also. With McGrandles and Boateng’s spot pretty much nailed in my opinion, the third midfield spot will be between academy graduate Kasumu and Houghton, who has impressed this season once again. Last season’s Players’ Player of the Season Alex Gilbey and Brennan Dickenson had another run out midweek but with Tisdale looking to ease both in after injuries, I would be surprised to see either or both start on Saturday.
MK Dons expected XI (3-5-2): Nicholls (GK), Walsh, Martin, Poole, Lewington, McGrandles, Kasumu, Boateng, Brittain, Bowery, Agard.
MC: 20-year-old striker Sam Nombe has broken into the MK Dons first team this year scoring four goals already in all competitions; do you think he has the potential to be an integral player for your club?
LC: 100%. When partnered up with a striker like Bowery up front, you really see what Nombe can offer for this side with his hard work and link up play with whoever his strike partner would be. He his everything Agard should be and more, and we have only seen him for a handful of games!
The past two home league games has seen him start as the lone striker in a 5-4-1 formation which really has not suited him. He can hold the ball up well, but not for a full 90 with minimal support.
With Rhys Healey out for a few months, watching the development of Nombe is going to be one of the main features for this Dons side going forward and the early signs are very positive regarding his long term place at the club and in that starting eleven.
MC: Dons captain Dean Lewington has been with club since your formation in 2004 making over 600 league appearances for the club, playing a significant part in three different promotion campaigns. How important is it to have individuals like him around who show a rare form of loyalty and commitment to one club in the modern game?
LC: The one time we as a really noticed the absence of the loyalty and commitment that Lewington has was when Robbie Neilson was manager. He exiled Lewington from the club altogether, even going as far as Lewington having to train with other Football League clubs just to stay fit. The club really did not feel the same with Lewie gone and there was a real toxicity to the whole atmosphere, which led to Neilson leaving the club and Lewington returning.
Whilst we have had managers go and relegation occur, Lewie has always been that one person on the pitch whose been through it all, almost a representation of the MK faithful on the pitch, week in, week out. Lewington carries one of the remaining pieces from Wimbledon and has been a key piece in giving the club an identity to this day, which is varied depending on who you speak to.
His playing career will eventually come to an end, but the plan is for him to become a coach at the club once retired. He has been a real mentor to the academy lads here today, and the ones who have gone to other paths and clubs. He is a living legend and I doubt we will see a player like him for a long time.
MC: MK Dons have not drawn a league game this season, but we all know Sunderland love a 1-1 draw, what is your honest prediction for the score on Saturday?
LC: I do think we will put in a solid performance on Saturday. We really should have took Liverpool to penalties on Wednesday, wasting plenty of chances and the players after the game knew they missed a real opportunity to get another giant killing. Sunderland are of course coming off their own Premier League scalp with the win in Sheffield on Wednesday. Could there be a bit of a hangover from that performance? Potentially. McGeady and Gooch do worry me a fair bit as to what they could do to the Dons defence, especially after a rest in midweek. The games between us tend to be high scoring and I feel Dons will fall to a defeat late on. Score Prediction: Sunderland 3 MK Dons 2.
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