Sunderland fans will be glad to hear that, according to the stats at least, it seems unlikely that this weekend’s opposition will score an early goal - Gillingham have scored only two of their thirty-nine goals in the first quarter of an hour of the game.
Further good news for Sunderland this weekend is that Gillingham seem to be the type of team Phil Parkinson’s side have excelled against since the start of 2020. Not only are this week’s visitors of mediocre ability - reflected by their eleventh-place position in the league table - but they also play a style of football which Sunderland’s back three, and especially Alim Ozturk, tend to fair well against.
Contrary to the style of play Sunderland came up against at St. Andrew’s last Sunday, where Matt Godden predictably caused Sunderland problems getting in behind Ozturk for his winning goal, Steve Evans’ side play a more stereotypical league one style, put simply - plenty of long balls up to and crosses aimed at a big target man up front.
For much of the first half of the season this target man was Mikael Mandron, who Roker Report’s resident Stat Man found in his article earlier in the week is one of the best players in the division at playing the out-and-out target man role. However, it should come as a relief that Mandron has seemingly gone out of favour, with Evans preferring John Akinde to the former Sunderland striker.
The exclusion of Mandron over the past few weeks does not take away the essence of Gillingham’s style. Only Wycombe - who Sunderland dispatched three-nil at the Stadium of Light - have an average pass length that is longer than this weekend’s visitors, showing exactly the type of test facing Ozturk and co. on Saturday afternoon.
A slight worry or Sunderland could be the amount of goals Gillingham score down the flanks - 18 of their 22 goals from open play this season have come down either the right or left side, with only three coming through the middle. This demonstrates the away side’s emphasis of getting the ball wide in order to hit crosses into the box, and whilst Sunderland are seemingly well-prepared to defend these types of ball into the box, if they are too ambitious with their wing-backs throughout the game, Gillingham are a side with the ability to punish them down the sides.
Finally, as is the case with most teams with a target man and a direct style of play, Gillingham’s main attacking threat is likely to come from set-pieces. Only Fleetwood and Rotherham, two of Sunderland’s promotion rivals, have scored more than Gillingham’s 18 goals from set pieces his term and with Sunderland likely to dominate in open play, it will be important to avoid giving away too many free kicks in dangerous positions for Steve Evans’ side to cause Jon McLaughlin problems.