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Talking Points: Are we seeing a more dynamic Sunderland, and are the youngsters worth more game time?

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After our comprehensive win over MK Dons in the Papa Johns Trophy, Matthew Crichton mulls over the game’s key talking points.

Milton Keynes Dons v Sunderland - Papa John’s Trophy Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

Sunderland beat MK Dons 3-0 last night away from home to book their place in the semi-finals of this season’s EFL Trophy. The Black Cats will now either face League One rivals Oxford, Lincoln, or League Two side Tranmere to fight for a place at Wembley in the final.

Lee Johnson’s men took an early lead when Jack Diamond’s cross was diverted into his own net by MK Dons captain Dean Lewington. Russell Martin’s side failed to put Sunderland under serious pressure, and the match was wrapped up when substitutes Aiden McGeady and Charlie Wyke both scored.

Milton Keynes Dons v Sunderland - Papa John’s Trophy Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Is the EFL Trophy helping Sunderland to build confidence and create positive competition?

Lee Johnson once again showed his serious intentions in the EFL Trophy, fielding a strong team and bringing on Sunderland’s most dangerous players to ensure victory.

The 39-year-old cleverly managed the squad, so starting players (bar Max Power) did not play a full 90 minutes, while Lynden Gooch and Luke O’Nien both completed their first full games since returning from injury.

The fixture proved highly useful for Sunderland: the squad’s confidence was boosted; Wyke and McGeady continued their goalscoring form; the players who turned out put in solid performances, and the club’s best academy graduates were awarded more game time.

Johnson now has some positive selection dilemmas as more players are now fit and performing.

For example, Gooch has staked a claim to play upfront with Wyke, Jordan Jones looked dangerous on the attack, while Dan Neil continues to impress every time he is given a first-team chance.

Additional fixtures are problematic is a common argument when it comes to fatigue and injury, but Sunderland are now just 90 minutes away from Wembley and another EFL Trophy final.

The squad are competing with one another for a starting place in a semi-final, and with the prospect of a Wembley final on the horizon, the squad could have an extra edge over the coming weeks.

It may not be the FA or League Cup, but a trophy is a trophy, and there is no shame in wanting your team to win something.

Sunderland are at an advanced stage of the competition, so they may as well go all out to win it to give the fans some positivity this year!

Milton Keynes Dons v Sunderland - Papa John’s Trophy - Quarter Final - Stadium MK Photo by Zac Goodwin/PA Images via Getty Images

Is Lee Johnson creating a more dynamic Sunderland?

When I saw Sunderland’s starting XI, the first thing I noticed was the amount of pace going forward and the energy in midfield.

Alongside Aiden O’Brien, Sunderland’s attack was Gooch, Jones and Jack Diamond – three players who all possess pace and the ability to attack players one-vs-one.

Behind them, O’Nien and Josh Scowen are both players who love to close down and work tirelessly – it was clear Johnson wanted to allow MK Dons to play out from the back to then prompt mistakes through a high press.

Sunderland looked promising on the counter-attack, and it was great to see players such as Diamond and Jones expressing themselves.

It was really enjoyable to watch, and the players’ work rate and determination to reclaim the ball straight away was also fantastic to see.

The decisions to allow Will Grigg and Danny Graham to leave the club also point to Johnson’s desire for his team to press high – neither player can operate in a high press. In contrast, Wyke is often credited for his covered distance during games.

It also explains why Chris Maguire, and unused substitute yesterday, has only started one League One match under Johnson.

If you add Denver Hume to the mix, Sunderland are starting to increase the number of players who possess high energy and can break at pace.

Johnson is still missing some pieces of the puzzle, but it seems Sunderland are heading in the right direction and the new approach appears to be both more exciting and more effective than earlier in the season under Phil Parkinson.

Milton Keynes Dons v Sunderland - Papa John’s Trophy - Quarter Final - Stadium MK Photo by Zac Goodwin/PA Images via Getty Images

A positive night for Sunderland’s academy: are Dan Neil and Ollie Younger credible cover options?

With Dion Sanderson, Carl Winchester and Jake Vokins cup-tied, and Bailey Wright, Conor McLaughlin and Ross Stewart injured, there was space on the substitutes bench for Dan Niel and Ollie Younger.

Johnson opted against sending Neil out on loan in January, due to his inability to recall him if need be.

The 19-year-old was given 65 minutes, coming on for the injured Callum McFadzean in the first half, and he once again did not look out of place playing as a deep midfielder.

Neil often catches the eye for his progressive play – he is always looking to move Sunderland up the pitch and is quick to make effective give and goes.

Should any of Sunderland’s deeper midfield options suffer injury, I would have no fear seeing Neil’s name on the team sheet. Instead, I would possess the confidence that he would be able to deliver.

Another name who has looked solid throughout their EFL Trophy appearances is Younger, who seems to have overtaken Brandon Taylor as Sunderland’s go-to reserve defender.

Signed from Burnley in the summer, the 21-year-old originally impressed against Fleetwood in the group stage, but he has also looked a solid option during brief spells against Port Vale and MK Dons.

Younger is fearless aerially and appears comfortable distributing the ball from the back. He is another who, if required to play in League One, should do well.

The problem for the above-mentioned duo, and keeper Anthony Patterson, is that senior players often reclaim their positions automatically, and reserve players are often judged more harshly and placed back into development squads.

The youngsters may need to wait for injuries to get a real opportunity, but with a busy fixture list ahead, it is great to see that Johnson has depth in many positions.

Milton Keynes Dons v Sunderland - Papa John’s Trophy Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images