Sunderland broke into the playoff places with their three-nil win at Burton Albion on Saturday afternoon in the first home game of the Kyril Louis-Dreyfus era, and Lee Johnson’s side will be looking to cement their position in the top six by beating Simon Grayson’s Fleetwood Town tonight.
With Bailey Wright ruled out two to three weeks after sustaining a minor tear to his calf during the Papa John’s Trophy semi-final against Lincoln this time last week, and with this game coming too soon for both Tom Flanagan and Ollie Younger, we’re likely to see another makeshift backline looking to get its second clean sheet in a row.
On the plus side, Sunderland got through the game at the Pirelli without any more injuries, and the option to rinse and repeat for tonight’s game is there if Lee Johnson so wishes.
Here’s how I think The Lads will line up.
Despite being protected by an eclectic mix of full-backs, wingers and centre midfielders in his defence on Saturday afternoon, Lee Burge managed to keep his 11th clean sheet of the season, and with a couple of second-half saves the former Coventry stopper certainly played his part.
Despite what seems like a constant raised eyebrow, if not all-out questioning, of Sunderland’s number one this season Burge is averaging a clean sheet ever other game and with the drop off to Remi Matthews vast I’d be surprised if we saw anyone other than Burge starting in goal for the rest of the season.
CB: McLaughlin CB: Sanderson CB: O’Nien
With none of Sunderland’s centre defenders returning in time for tonight’s game, combined with the clean sheet his side kept at the weekend, Lee Johnson will surely be tempted to continue with the same personnel and system from the game at the Pirelli Stadium, and that is exactly what I expect him to do.
Conor McLaughlin has made an under the radar renaissance as a Sunderland player this season, and he looked as solid as ever on Saturday on the right of the back three.
Alongside him, Dion Sanderson marshalled the back four in a performance fitting of someone which much more experience than the Wolves loanee, and Sunderland seem to be very lucky to have such a talented defender who came in as a bit of an afterthought at the end of the summer transfer window.
On the left, Luke O’Nien continued his record of doing a job absolutely anywhere on the pitch, both his and Lynden Gooch’s versatility was vital in allowing Sunderland to cope with our current injury crisis.
RM: Gooch CM: Power CM: Leadbitter LM: Vokins
At wing-back, Lynden Gooch scored and put in his best performance of the season as he was given the freedom to get as far forward as possible when Sunderland had the ball, knowing that Conor McLaughlin - a natural full-back - was happy to cover the wide areas left by Gooch’s forward runs.
On the other side, Burton’s right winger was their most dangerous attacking threat - which doesn’t reflect well on Jake Vokins, but with McFadzean likely out once again after his concussion Lee Johnson has little choice but to start the young defender who, to his credit, was much better on Saturday than in previous Sunderland appearances.
In the middle of the park, Sunderland actually have a few different options if they want to switch things up, with Josh Scowen, Carl Winchester and Dan Neil all on the bench at the weekend.
However, with Max Power and Grant Leadbitter providing a solid base on Saturday afternoon and the same makeshift defence needing protection again tonight, its likely that Lee Johnson will ask his two deepest midfielders to continue in the knowledge that he has options to take one or both of them off after an hour if fitness dictates.
RW: O’Brien LW: McGeady ST: Wyke
Saturday marked another game in which Aiden McGeady grabbed an assist and Charlie Wyke bagged a goal, although the attacking duo allowed a couple of other players in on the action, with McGeady assisting Leadbitter for Sunderland’s first and Wyke’s goal being set up by substitute Jordan Jones.
With Wyke and McGeady guaranteed starters, that leaves the final attacking spot as a straight shootout between Jordan Jones and Aiden O’Brien. Whilst Jones yet again made an impact coming off the bench, O’Brien’s hold up play and tendency to drift into a number ten position acted as a good counterbalance for Sunderland’s double pivot and allowed Lynden Gooch to spend most of his time in the opposition half, despite playing at wing-back.
This is why I’m backing O’Brien to start again, with Jones likely to be used as an impact sub especially if Fleetwood start chasing the game in the final half an hour.