Are we running out of defenders?
The absence of Conor McLaughlin on Tuesday through a reoccurrence of a hernia problem adds yet another defender to the injury list at the Academy of Light. While the makeshift defence of Power, Sanderson, O’Nien and McFadzean may not have been tested too much by Swindon, Lee Burge was called into action to make a good stop resulting from some disorganised defending and, with no experienced centre halves, we looked very nervous under pressure in the last few minutes.
With Willis, Wright, Xhemajli and Hume all sidelined, the next in line for the defence is Oliver Younger, who has warmed the bench for the last few games following his recovery from injury, and has looked very promising in the glimpses we’ve had of him at first team level. But for a side to be pushing for promotion and looking to bring home a trophy to be down to the bare bones at the back is worrying.
In his post-match comments, Lee Johnson called our injury crisis “horrendous”, and was spot on when said that the players we have out injured could compete in the top six in this league in their own right. He was also right to mention the ball carrying and passing ability of the midfielders who are currently filling in at the back as something of a silver lining but, with better teams than Swindon yet to play, we can only hope for some speedy recoveries in the weeks ahead.
Is Charlie Wyke now irreplaceable?
Yet again on Tuesday evening, Charlie Wyke came up with the goods to win us the three points. Despite being quiet for the majority of the match, he took his chance brilliantly, powering home a wonderful header from a great ball in from Chris Maguire. It doesn’t seem like five minutes ago that everyone, including myself, dismissed the idea that the big number nine was the answer to Sunderland’s goalscoring problems. It’s brilliant to see him emerge under Lee Johnson, with able assistance from McGeady and Maguire, as a real force to be reckoned with at this level.
With 24 goals in all competitions this season, he’s clearly in the form of his career and the first name on the team sheet for every game at the minute. But, with players dropping like flies around him, should we be concerned with the lack of an obvious replacement if Wyke does pick up an injury himself?
Lee Johnson has said that Wyke’s good form is allowing Ross Stewart, who is back training, to take his time in recovering from the injury that has meant that he’s yet to make his Sunderland debut. Stewart is clearly going to take time to gain any sort of match fitness even when available for selection, so right now he’s hardly an option.
The route available to Johnson in the centre forward position would probably involve adopting a different tactical approach. Aiden O’Brien is capable of playing up front but, despite grabbing a goal or two, hasn’t shown himself to be the kind ruthless finisher that new-improved Charlie Wyke is right now; able to find space in the box and connect with McGeady and Maguire’s quality deliveries. We would need to find a way of combining all the number 10s and wingers at our disposal in some sort of 4-6-0 formation.
So, as our passing interplay is not yet quite at the standard of Spain 2012, we had better hope we can keep the big lad fit for the Trophy final and the promotion push.
Are we serious contenders to go up automatically?
All that said about injury worries, we do continue to get the results, largely due to our strength in depth and versatility across the park. That we can bring on Chris Maguire, and Max Power can slot into the back line reasonably comfortably, means that even with the loss of players in good form like McLaughlin, Leadbitter and Gooch, we’re looking increasingly able to keep the momentum going.
Despite all the challenges we still face, there’s a definite positive vibe around the club at the minute. The psychology of football is such that these kinds of results, won with one piece of quality and a little bit of luck at the end, can almost be more valuable than a four-nil pushover for team spirit. Swindon were difficult to break down, but we found a way. That should breed confidence amongst the lads that they’ll do it again next time.
As the other teams around us in League One keep on slipping up too – this time round it was Lincoln City losing against the distinctly average Fleetwood side we beat recently – Sunderland suddenly look like the side in prime position to join Peterborough in the automatic promotion spots come May.
We sit five points behind Hull, who have played two more than the other sides in contention for promotion to the Championship. If we can do as Johnson says and kill off games more effectively, and maybe get a massive boost of winning at Wembley in a couple of weeks’ time, then we’ll be in with as good a chance as anyone of claiming at least second place in the league this season.