Sunderland’s start to the new season couldn’t have gotten off to a better start after they followed up last weekend’s win over Wigan Athletic with another victory, this time in the EFL Cup, against Port Vale during midweek.
Add to this the eventual signing of an actual, real life left-back in Denis Cirkin and we should be quietly confident for both this afternoon against MK Dons and for the season as a whole.
On the injury front, only long term absentees Arbenit Xhemajli and Jordan Willis are certainties to miss today’s game, but Elliot Embleton is set to be assessed following a contact injury he suffered against Wigan so it's a good job that Alex Pritchard was able to come out of his hour-long debut against Port Vale unscathed.
Here’s how I think the Lads will line up.
GK: Lee Burge
If the first two games have told us anything, its that Lee Burge is going to continue into his second season as the first-choice goalkeeper in the league, whilst Anthony Patterson will be given the early cup games in order to build up some first-team experience and put pressure on the former Coventry stopper’s place in the side.
Despite some uncomfortable moments last weekend, Burge is yet to make any major mistakes and with Patterson also testing the nerves of the Sunderland fans during midweek we’re unlikely to see an early change between the posts for Lee Johnson’s side.
RB: Winchester CB: Flanagan CB: Doyle LB: Cirkin
The defence is probably the most likely place we’ll see changes, with Dennis Cirkin’s addition meaning we now have a natural full back who will presumably go straight onto the left of the back four. Despite suffering from covid early in his preseason, Cirkin played 65 minutes for Spurs’ under 23 side last week and should be ready to play at least another hour this afternoon.
On the right, Carl Winchester was withdrawn due to injury in the season opener against Wigan, if he hasn’t recovered in time for this afternoon then Cirkin’s addition means Dan Neil will switch over from left back, but Lee Johnson didn’t mention the former Forest Green midfielder as a doubt so I fully expect him to keep his place at right back.
In the middle, Tom Flanagan and Callum Doyle produced a solid final 75 minutes of their first league start together and although Bailey Wright is an upgrade on Flanagan in terms of quality, the former Bristol City man’s injury record means it’s wise to give him as much time as possible to gain full match fitness before throwing him into a league game from the start.
CM: O’Nien CM: Evans
With Dan Neil likely to be relieved of his duties at full back, there is more competition for places in Sunderland’s midfield however, I fully expect Luke O’Nien and Corry Evans to continue the partnership which led the Lads to victory last time out.
Captain Evans put in a classy and assured performance on his competitive debut, whilst Luke O’Nien’s tenacity and energy was a welcome change from pretty much all Sunderland midfielders we’ve seen during our time in League One.
RM: Gooch AM: Pritchard LM: McGeady
If any changes in defence are likely to be tactical, the only way Sunderland will switch things up in midfield will be due to injury. Aiden McGeady grabbed a goal from the penalty spot, Lynden Gooch was the man of the match and Elliot Embleton grabbed the assist for Ross Stewart’s winner so all three should keep their place if fit.
Unfortunately, Embleton is facing a late fitness test after suffering a contact injury against Wigan and with Alex Pritchard completing 65 minutes on Tuesday night Lee Johnson could be tempted to make one change to his attack whilst he has such a good backup option fit and available.
The most nailed on starter of all has to be Ross Stewart who, after causing mild concern by not scoring until the final preseason game, bagged the winner last weekend and will be looking to do the same again this afternoon.
The fact that Aiden O’Brien was preferred to Will Grigg in midweek shows just how clear Stewart is the first choice in our current squad since O’Brien’s lack of goals means he’s likely to be seen as a more physical option in the number ten position rather than as an alternative to Stewart.
I do expect someone to be brought in on loan to put pressure on our Scottish marksman, but even then it will be Ross Stewart’s place to lose and until that point he will start in the league when fit.