Sunderland beat League Two side Port Vale yesterday, to advance to the quarter-finals of the EFL Trophy. The Black Cats took the lead in the first half through Aiden O’Brien, before a late Aiden McGeady penalty secured the victory.
The victory proved to be a welcome distraction from League One, as Lee Johnson’s men have won just one of their last nine league fixtures. The quarter-final fixtures will take place in early February and the club could: Hull, Peterborough, Oxford, Wimbledon, Lincoln, MK Dons, or one of Tranmere or Leicester Under-21s.
Should Lee Johnson start Dan Neil or loan him to League Two?
Following a week of being linked with a move away from Sunderland, academy graduate Dan Neil put in a first-half performance that left many Wearsiders wondering why he has not been given more first-team opportunities.
The 19-year-old was deployed in a deep role by manager Lee Johnson, excelling at both ends of the pitch through his tackling and range of passing.
Neil caught the eye through the progressive passing he displayed throughout the half, he consistently looked to move the ball forward, which was refreshing for Sunderland fans who are used to observing midfielders take a safety-first approach.
His performance prompted a debate amongst fans on social media as to whether he should be awarded more game time, or be loaned out to a club who can provide him with regular first-team minutes.
If he stays, Neil would be competing with the likes of Grant Leadbitter, Max Power, Josh Scowen, as well as new signing Carl Winchester for the deeper midfield roles. George Dobson seems set for a move away, but even then Neil would still have four senior players to fight for a place with.
Alternatively, League Two leaders Carlisle, as well as Forest Green are reported to be interested in a six-month loan deal. This would give Neil a taste of regular senior football, in a less pressuring environment than the demands of promotion which are present at Sunderland.
This leaves Lee Johnson with a tough decision to make, does he drop a more senior player to field an untested youngster with great potential, or does he take the safer option in loaning him to a lower level to continue his development?
Is Max Power capable of playing right-back?
2021 has already brought some unexpected surprises, Max Power being utilised at right-back is certainly one of them.
The captain has come under scrutiny this season for his lack of involvement going forward, as Sunderland have been crying out for some creativity in midfield. However, when Lee Johnson moved him to right-back many were shocked, but he ended the match having done a reasonably good job.
Once again yesterday Power was steady, but the question is could he be an option moving forward against improved opposition?
Currently Sunderland’s first-choice right-back is Luke O’Nien, but when he returns from injury many have called for his return to midfield in one of the two box-to-box roles.
That would leave Sunderland with Dion Sanderson and Conor McLaughlin, but both have put in their best performances this season playing centrally. The problem with the above mentioned duo is that they are more defensive minded and barely influence the game offensively.
Lee Johnson is not the first manager to deploy Power as a full-back, during Wigan’s 2017/18 League One promotion season under Paul Cook he played a small amount there as cover. Perhaps the idea is that Power is more capable of overlapping and delivering crosses than the other options.
Is this a temporary measure, or could the 27-year-old become Sunderland’s first choice right-back?
Can Aiden O’Brien turn his Sunderland form around?
Last week I rated Aiden O’Brien as a 3/10 summer signing, but could his goal yesterday prove to be the turning point of his Sunderland tenure?
The Republic of Ireland international linked play well, converted a very tidy shot on his weaker foot, as well as playing through Jack Diamond who won a late penalty - overall I would say it was his best performance in a red and white shirt.
It was the 27-year-old's second goal in the EFL Trophy this season, having also netted against Aston Villa Under-21s, but he is still yet to register a League One goal.
Currently, Charlie Wyke is Sunderland’s first-choice striker, but Johnson has shown he is not scared to change formation and the Black Cats appeared to operate in a 4-2-2-2 system for a large proportion of the match.
If Sunderland are to mount a promotion push, they cannot afford to only have one of four strikers scoring in League One, players like O’Brien need to put their poor form behind them and focus on making sure they can positively contribute to Johnson’s new-look Sunderland.
Hopefully now he is back to full fitness, O’Brien can compete for a starting place and start putting in the type of performances which led him to become a starter for Millwall in the Championship.
The question is, can O’Brien reproduce that performance against League One sides, or was he just appearing superior against lower league opposition?