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Starting XI: Is this the Sunderland side that will take on Rochdale this afternoon?

Who do you reckon will make Lee Johnson’s starting eleven for this afternoon’s game against Rochdale?

Sunderland v Swindon Town - Sky Bet League One Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

After a narrow victory in midweek, Sunderland’s draw away at Crewe last weekend now seems like a minor blip rather than the end of a good run of form.

With so many injuries and Conor McLaughlin added to that list during the last week, there’s been an increased emphasis on taking each game as it comes and looking to mask the team’s weaknesses rather than building towards to long-term tactical setup.

With the main tactic seeming to be ‘keep it away from Callum McFadzean’, the impact of Aiden McGeady has been reduced in recent matches. If Lee Johnson views the Republic of Ireland international as the key attacking player, he may look to change things in a bid to get more out of his side’s best creator but, of course, his options are limited due to those injuries.

Here’s how I think The Lads will line up.

GK: Burge

Lee Burge registered another clean sheet during midweek and showed good awareness to close down a Swindon attacker who was released in-behind the defence when the scores were level.

He remains a solid number one, and in a team that doesn’t concede too many chances, his status as a safe pair of hands who will make the saves he is expected to make is an upgrade on some goalkeepers from our not-too-distant past.

Sunderland v Swindon Town - Sky Bet League One Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

RB: Power CB: Sanderson CB: Younger LB: O’Nien

Three-quarters of the Sunderland back four pick themselves at the moment, with Max Power, Dion Sanderson and Luke O’Nien all putting in consistent seven-out-of-ten performances in a makeshift back four.

However, as I mentioned in the introduction, Sunderland main weakness continues to be Callum McFadzean at left back, and Lee Johnson’s attempts to make up for this have led to a complete imbalance throughout the side.

For this reason, I’m hoping to see Luke O’Nien moved out to left back, in order to prevent the need for almost every other player positioning themselves in a way which allows them to cover for our left back.

Now, one problem with this is that Sunderland also have no fit senior centre backs - hence O’Nien’s inclusion in this position - and with Tom Flanagan and Bailey Wright still not ready to return, Ollie Younger is the only man able to play alongside Dion Sanderson.

I can understand Johnson’s reluctance to place a relatively untested player in such an important position, but with Portsmouth to come in midweek and the cup final next weekend now is the time to give the young defender the chance to make an impact in the first team. The last thing we want is for Sanderson or O’Nien to pick up an injury today, meaning Younger may have to be thrown in at the deep end into a difficult game against Pompey and a cup final at Wembley.

Sunderland v Port Vale - Papa John’s Trophy Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

CM: Maguire CM: Scowen CM: Winchester

With two midfielders in the back four, and Grant Leadbitter’s injury, both Josh Scowen and Carl Winchester are certainties for the next few games and it is a perfect chance for Winchester especially to show why he has been brought to the club.

Scowen has been hamstrung by the constant changing of positions, especially under the previous manager but also under Johnson, and more recently by the need to hold the hand of Callum McFadzean and avoid every one of the former Plymouth wing-back’s brain farts to end in a goal for the opposition. Hopefully the patching up of the Sunderland defence will allow Scowen to produce his best performances.

Alongside these two, I’ve gone for Chris Maguire who has made an unexpected return to the Sunderland side after it looked like he could be out of the door in the January window.

Lynden Gooch went off injured during midweek after being prefered to Gooch, but I favour Maguire’s ability to either drop into a midfield three or to play just behind Charlie Wyke.

Sunderland v Swindon Town - Sky Bet League One Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

RW: Jones LW: McGeady ST: Wyke

Like Scowen, Aiden McGeady has suffered from Sunderland’s tactic of keeping the ball down the right-hand side, and even if this remains the way Sunderland go, I would like to see McGeady more involved in Sunderland’s play. This could mean moving the Republic of Ireland international into a more central position, with one of Maguire, Gooch or O’Brien playing on the left, but I still think his best position is that left-hand-side and that we should focus on dealing with the left-back problem at its source instead of dealing with its symptoms higher up the pitch.

Like McGeady, Charlie Wyke is a vital part of the Sunderland attack and he made a welcome return to the goals after a couple of games off to net the winner during midweek. His game has improved dramatically under Lee Johnson and currently looks like a striker who is always capable of scoring no matter how involved he is in overall play.

The only question mark when it comes to Sunderland’s attack is who will play on the right-side with Lynden Gooch seemingly the first choice, and Jordan Jones failing to fully grasp his chance when given a start on Tuesday night.

That said, I think Jones’ consistently strong substitute performances deserve another start, especially if he can play in his more natural wide position rather than the central areas he was deployed in during midweek.

Sunderland v Swindon Town - Sky Bet League One Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

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