Well, it’s the play-offs. Again.
The term is drenched in pessimism and anguish across the entire Sunderland fanbase – and our current crop of players are going to have to succeed where many of our previous sides have failed.
Despite how our season ended, and the rumblings of discontent against ‘Streaky Johnson’, I feel like we have the right man in charge to guide us over the final hurdles and to promotion.
Johnson’s clinical thinking and focus on the tactics board may be where the main battles are won and lost in these upcoming fixtures.
With that in mind, I have had a go at putting myself in his shoes and picking the teams that will take on the Imps over two legs.
First leg – Lincoln away
This will be the first time we will be playing in front of a crowd this season and Lincoln will be fired up to give their supporters something to cheer. So to combat this, I believe LJ will use the 4-3-3 formation he has dabbled with recently to try and ensure we dictate the tempo of the game.
Goalkeeper and defence
The lineup will, of course, start with the ‘EFL Best Goalkeeper of the Season’ in Lee Burge; practically the first name on the team sheet at the moment.
In defence, we are starting to have a bit more luck when it comes to selection. McLaughlin, Vokins and Flanagan are very dependable at this level, with the latter two gaining minutes in the U23s recent 1-1 draw with Stoke.
With this in mind, I feel our back four will consist of Conor McLaughlin, Bailey Wright, Luke O’Nien and Denver Hume.
This will provide a bit more stability in the back four for Burge and allow us to hold back Flanagan for the second leg, or potentially a cameo towards the end if all’s well a la his appearance in the win at Portsmouth.
In midfield, I believe we will have Carl Winchester at the bottom of a pivot with Josh Scowen and Max Power in front; which will interchange over the course of the game.
Scowen will provide the high-intensity press, Power the driving force and Winchester will take on the role of looking to keep us passing forward. All three are decent defensively but have more in the tank than a Leadbitter to cope with the pace of a fired-up Lincoln, who’ll likely come flying out of the traps.
Now, upfront is where there are some contentious decisions to make. I feel that on the left we should have Jordan Jones, on the right Lynden Gooch and leading the line (injury permitting) Ross Stewart.
Stewart adds a level of pace that Wyke lacks, and pressing with our highest man will allow the rest of the team to follow suit. Gooch has been one of our better players recently and has struck up a decent understand with the leggy Scot, so could be given the role of out-and-out winger (which I feel is his best position) while also providing cover for McLaughlin who is still returning to full fitness.
On the left, I feel Jones and Hume had a few good combinations against Northampton, and with McGeady maybe not 100 per cent this is Jones’ chance to cement a place in this playoff run with his directness and trickery.
Second leg – Back at the SOL!
Back to a Stadium of Light where some Lads fans will be attending! Regardless of the first leg result, I expect the ‘Tinkerer of League One’ to try and impress with some more attacking-minded play.
Due to the short turnaround, and the fact we have a decent pool of players to choose from, I feel Johnson will switch to 4-2-3-1 in this game and look to win/if not kill off the tie.
Goalkeeper and defence
Of course, this will include Lee Burge, but I expect the defensive line in front of him to change. I think this will be Max Power, Bailey Wright, Tom Flanagan and Denver Hume.
This would be the opportune time to give Flanagan his first start in a while on home soil and give McLaughlin a rest with Power filling in while continuing the rebuild of Hume and Wright’s match fitness.
In the midfield two, I believe there will be a surprise selection – Grant Leadbitter and Luke O’Nien.
I believe Grant’s composure in the second leg against Portsmouth two years ago showed he knows how to handle a big-stakes game, which may be his last game at the Stadium of Light.
Alongside him, I feel the defensive shackles will be temporarily removed from Luke O’Nien in the box-to-box role where most would prefer him to be, before moving back to the back four should Flanagan tire.
The front four will consist of Jack Diamond, Aiden O’Brien and the league’s highest assister Aiden McGeady behind Charlie Wyke.
I feel Diamond had his best game of the season against Lincoln at their place in the 45 minutes he played and will be tasked with trying to draw as many yellow cards out of their side with his directness, backed up by the steadiness of captain Max Power behind him.
McGeady, it goes without saying, is the best creator in the league, and allowing him a slight rest in the first leg will enable him to fire on all cylinders to try and excite the Mackems in the ground for the first time since his exile under Parkinson.
O’Brien gets into the team purely because I feel he does the donkey work. If O’Brien’s not in the team, that responsibility falls to Wyke, which detracts from his goalscoring.
Wyke is at his best when O’Brien chases down defenders, so he can just linger for crosses from the likes of Diamond and McGeady, thus saving his energy to be that poacher he has turned out to be this season.
Overall, I believe this will be Johnson’s line of thinking when it comes to these games – and I haven’t even mentioned the ‘King’! I wouldn’t be surprised if Maguire’s used as a super-sub in either game and repeats his Portsmouth heroics of two years ago.
All in all, it’s just good to have a coach who understands the capability of his squad and has a headache as to how to fully utilise them effectively. Hopefully, his choices will mean that, come next Saturday evening, we’re all heading home happy, looking forward to yet another Wembley trip.