Just how beneficial have the cups been for us this season?
The cup competitions can be something of an unwanted distraction from the regular league action – but for Sunderland this season, cup games have been pretty well timed. They’ve given the team a no-pressure game to bounce back in after Fleetwood, Portsmouth and Charlton and, more importantly, have given Lee Johnson the chance to make significant changes without the controversy that would be caused by dropping players for a league game.
After poor performances at the weekend, O’Brien and McGeady were ‘rested’ last night, in favour of the returning Lynden Gooch and Leon Dajaku, while Alex Pritchard stepped out of the team to accommodate Corry Evans. The three behind Ross Stewart just didn’t get going on Saturday, but if Johnson had made those changes for a league game, he would have been heavily scrutinised by players and fans alike. Now, after strong performances from the players who came into the team, it’s far easier for Johnson to justify them retaining their places for Saturday. Praise too, for the other players who came in – Burge, Wright and Alves all played important roles, while Denver Hume was having a good game too until his early withdrawal.
Lynden Gooch shows what we’ve been missing over the past few weeks
Lynden Gooch is a player who can polarise supporters – when he’s good he’s very, very good, but his inconsistency can be frustrating. What he does bring consistently, however, is a first-class work rate and some healthy aggression, which is one thing our current squad does lack. We need those players who can really get in the face of the opposition (and referee!) and give them something else to think about. Gooch must be a horrible player to play against – he rarely stops and gives his all, and I think we’ve really missed those attributes in games where things aren’t going our own way. He’s clearly working his way back to fitness, but showed some lovely moments of quality, too – and he’s one who I’d certainly start with on Saturday.
Evans, Neil and O’Nien give Johnson something to ponder
How does three go into two? Maybe it doesn’t have to. Last night was the first time we’ve seen Corry Evans, Dan Neil and Luke O’Nien play in the same team from the off – and it gave us a lot more solidity than we saw on Saturday. It’s a change I would have made at half time against Charlton, as I felt we were getting overrun in the centre of midfield. Last night. Evans sat deep which let O’Nien and Neil play slightly ahead of him. Neil had some bright moments, and O’Nien performed much better than on Saturday with some protection behind him. Unsurprisingly, it suited him. When he was at Wycombe, he was a box-to-box midfielder rather than the defensive role he’s had to play out of necessity for the majority of the campaign. It wasn’t perfect, but to me we looked a stronger proposition, and it’ll be interesting to see if Johnson retains that midfield line up for Saturday, or recalls Pritchard or Embleton.
But do we need to be more clinical?
One criticism of last night, however, is our lack of goals. Unlike Saturday, when we struggled to create much at all, we had a number of decent chances against QPR – and once again failed to trouble the scoresheet. If we’re going to go up this season, we need to be more clinical in front of goal – we need to develop a ruthless streak in both an assist and scoring perspective. We’ve got the players who, I believe, can do it – but we need to see those chances convert, sooner rather than later.
We were the beneficiaries of a bad decision - for once!
Let’s be honest – the goal QPR scored with minutes remaining was a goal. It was miles onside, and I can’t believe the assistant referee gave it as offside. QPR have every right to feel aggrieved. However, after the abysmal display from Darren Drysdale at the weekend, perhaps we were due a bit of luck. And we certainly got it.
Injuries show January reinforcements are needed
When Ross Stewart went down in the last minute clutching his shoulder, the whole of Sunderland’s global supporter base held their collective breath. He was fit enough to take – and score – his penalty, but it just underlined how dependent we are on the big Scotsman. Who’d take his place if injured? Harris, potentially, but it’d be a big ask. Maybe Pritchard, Gooch or Dajaku would step in – but they’d all be playing out of position. In all likelihood it’d be Aiden O’Brien, but for all his qualities he’s not a goalscorer. While we have a number of choices in attacking midfield, we don’t have a great deal of depth at centre forward or indeed in centre midfield. Those two positions are going to be top of the target list come January.
Can we go much further? Strong display showed promising signs for the future, regardless
Going any further in the competition will be a big ask, but it’s one the team are capable of standing up to, and it’ll be intriguing to see who we get drawn against. I’m hoping for a Premier League team at home! Whether we go any further or not, however, it was incredibly pleasing to see the players playing their style of football, and playing it well, against a good Championship team. This team has mountains of potential, is playing attractive football and yes, there’s room for improvement, lots of it, but it’s so exciting to see. The team spirit and togetherness seem outstanding – long may it continue!