GOALKEEPER: J McLaughlin
Whilst part of me feels bad for Lee Burge, who hasn’t put a foot (or glove) wrong whenever he’s played between the sticks for Sunderland this season, I’m over the moon that we’ve seen Jon McLaughlin find his form and consistency once more.
Since returning to the team in early December he’s been an ever-present in the side, and we’ve seen a rise in his performance levels and, thus, his on-field productivity.
McLaughlin has conceded only seven goals in twelve games and is picking up clean sheets like they’re Valentines Day cards. Frankly, the only way I see Lee Burge displacing him from the side this season is if the Scotland international goalkeeper picks up an injury.
BACK THREE: Willis, Wright & Flanagan
Sunderland have the best defence in the league - it’s official.
We’ve conceded only 26 goals so far this season, the lowest in the league, and that’s largely down to the suitability of the players that we have playing in Parkinson’s system.
The addition of Bailey Wright should, over time, see further improvement. He’s physically imposing, great in the air and a good leader. In essence, he’s an upgrade on Alim Ozturk - and it pains me to say that as an Alim fan, but for the good of the team we’ve signed someone better. It happens - tough people sometimes have to make tough choices.
Tom Flanagan is back in the team after Joel Lynch’s injury and whilst the ex-QPR man is expected to return to training on Monday, he’s going to find it hard to dislodge his replacement if he keeps putting in performances like the one against Rochdale.
Similarly, Jordan Willis has no real competition for his spot in the team, particularly because he’s got a set of skills like nobody else in Sunderland’s squad. Willis plays virtually as a right back, overlapping whenever Luke O’Nien receives the ball out on the wing. His pace, power and crossing ability make him a surprisingly-important attacking outlet, one that most sides at this level will struggle to contain.
We’ve kept six clean sheets in our last seven games, and the last two displays in particular have seen us look virtually unbreakable. There’s no chance of Parkinson changing this back three any time soon.
MIDFIELD: O’Nien, Dobson, Power, Hume
As you can see in the image above, George Dobson played an important role in Sunderland’s first half success against Rochdale.
With Chris Maguire and Luke O’Nien virtually playing the same position, and Jordan Willis linking up well with our right back in order to overlap and create overloads on the right-hand side of the pitch, Dobson was needed to knit all the pieces together and help pick out the passes needed to push us up the pitch.
Josh Scowen must be wondering what he has to do to get in the team, and I feel sorry for him, because he’s dropped a league in order to play regular football and, well, he’s not getting it. From Phil Parkinson’s perspective though it must be hard to drop anyone when we’re conceding hardly any goals and picking up a healthy amount of points.
Max Power is the current team captain, unofficially, and is really growing into his role as the team’s ‘water-carrier’ - something I wrote about at length after the Tranmere game.
All good teams need a central midfield player who rolls up their sleeves and does the dirty work - and Power is that man for Sunderland. The hard work of the two central midfielders in front of the defence is a large part of why we’ve kept so many clean sheets recently.
Flanked either side today will be the seemingly unmovable duo of Luke O’Nien and Denver Hume. O’Nien was one of Sunderland’s best players on Tuesday, whilst Denver Hume has been able to retain the faith of the manager in recent weeks despite some indifferent yet hard-working performances. Hume needs to play well if he’s going to keep Declan John from breathing down his neck - Sunderland have two good options in that position.
ATTACKING MIDFIELD: Gooch & Maguire
I was left with egg on my face after Lynden Gooch’s match-winning performance on Tuesday night - before the game I was calling for him to get a “much-needed” rest, hopefully with Antoine Semenyo coming into the team in his place!
I’m just glad Phil Parkinson didn’t listen to me.
The pair are our two main goalscorers and, in the mind of the manager, are the two most important pieces of the puzzle. Virtually everything else is built around getting the best from them both.
Chris Maguire is second to only Ivan Toney as League One’s most productive player. He’s got 18 combined goals and assists - when he’s on the pitch, our team has a fantastic chance of scoring goals. Perhaps the secret to stopping Sunderland is to ensure Chris Maguire barely gets a touch of the ball - that’s easier said than done, though.
Charlie Wyke doesn’t score enough goals but he’s still very important to the side, and it doesn’t appear as though Kyle Lafferty stands a chance of displacing him any time soon.
Wyke’s hold up play and ability in front of goal leaves very little to be desired, but his sheer awkwardness and the fact he seems to occupy central defenders while Gooch and Maguire go about their business diligently mean he’s likely to keep his place for the time being.
He really does need to score more goals, though. It’ll certainly be easier to justify his continued inclusion if he starts putting away more of the chances he’s afforded.