Matthew Crichton: After looking destined for relegation to League Two, Jimmy Floyd Hasslebaink came in and completely revitalised Burton last season. What factors have led to his success with the club so far?
Edward Walker: The main thing Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Dino Maamria have done is greatly improve Burton’s solidity. Having conceded 50 goals in the first half of last season, they conceded only 23 in the second half of the campaign.
There’s a much more rigid structure in place now at Burton. The team is better set up for dealing with crosses into the box, collecting second balls and putting in vital blocks when necessary. The team is also capable however of playing higher up and pressing the opposition in their own half as well.
On top of that defensive solidity comes a big set-piece threat. Whether it be Tom Hamer’s long throw or delivery from one of our midfielders, Burton provide an aerial threat with several of their biggest players and that threat could well become even more dangerous as the season progresses.
MC: Burton currently sit joint-top of League One alongside Sunderland having won their first two matches - what are your expectations for the club this season?
EW: It’s probably a different answer for each person you ask at this stage. There’s natural early-season hope which I think every fan of a club has, and plenty of Burton fans hope this encouraging start can continue for a while yet.
Me personally, the main priority I feel is making 2020-21 a thing of the past; not finding ourselves stuck in a perilous position halfway through the campaign.
This looks the toughest League One line-up I can recall for years, with a lot of clubs that are considered bigger than Burton and have higher expectations put on them. I think if after the season is done we find Burton in the middle of the table and well clear of safety, that’s a very solid platform to build on.
MC: Your team have recruited 12 new players so far this summer after a big overhaul in January as well - do you think the club needed a proper clearout to start fresh?
EW: Yes, but not as major a clearout as last January I feel.
The main priority for me this summer was replacing the departing loan players and what they offered to the side. Hasselbajnk and Maamria have not only looked to do this, but in turn have done really well to reduce the average age of the squad and add depth into all areas.
10 of the 12 signings have been permanent ones, with deals given to players that are either in their prime years or yet to approach it. The loan additions, so far in goal and attacking midfield, have added additional numbers to what are key areas of the pitch in Burton’s current setup.
Fans were very encouraged by the business Burton did last January as they looked to get out of serious trouble. With the new season and a fresh start, business has been equally impressive and clearly carries a more long-term view.
MC: Of those 12 new players, which of them excite you the most and why?
EW: In terms of who excites most, one who’s proved popular very quickly is Ryan Leak, a 23-year-old centre-back. He was born in Burton-on-Trent but came from Wolves’ academy, and had last been playing out in Spain’s third tier before coming back to England. He was on trial during a friendly against Leicester and immediately impressed, signing a two-year deal last month, and has quickly established in the left-sided centre-back role.
He’s a seriously no-nonsense player. Great size, determined to clear every ball coming in his direction, reads the game great within his own third, and has enough mobility to step out or cover his CB partner Conor Shaughnessy as well. The fans love him already and he’s been here less than a month.
MC: Lucas Akins scored the winner against Ipswich on Saturday, which was his first goal during his eighth season with the club. The 32-year-old has played in three different divisions with Burton - you cannot buy that sort of experience, can you?
EW: Lucas Akins really is like no other player in the Football League. He was a summer arrival back in 2014 when Gary Rowett was manager. I doubt any of us back then saw what was coming. He’s into his 8th season here now, and he’s been at the heart of the most successful period in Burton Albion’s history.
What makes Akins so great is that despite being a natural winger, he’s got the most complete skillset that a footballer could ask for. That has enabled him to play and excel in every single outfield position during his time at Burton Albion. It wouldn’t be a surprise to any of us if he turned out to be a half-decent goalkeeper as well!
He’s the first name on the teamsheet and fills in whatever position is needed, and is almost always on that teamsheet because his fitness is at a level that all the other players aspire to reach in pre-season.
Akins is a true model professional both on and off the pitch. He’s been a leader in the team for years now, and his humble, kind character off the pitch means that every fan of the club adores him. For a man born in Huddersfield, his home without doubt has become Burton-on-Trent.
We’re going to need more than one player to replace what he brings when he finally calls it a day here…
MC: Aside from the above-mentioned players, which Burton players should Sunderland fans be wary of?
EW: Jonny Smith is an agile wide player who is a direct threat on the counter attack and particularly dangerous when coming in from the right on his left foot.
Tom O’Connor’s is a new arrival from Southampton who’s found a home in midfield as a key part of the team's transitions. He’s capable of playing these smart, short passes that often break lines and progress the ball upfield.
With an injury to Jacob Maddox, attacking midfielder Joe Powell is back in the team and showing what he’s about. Perhaps the main creator in the team with good set-piece delivery, he has very nice close control and is developing an eye for goal as well.
Tom Hamer is more of a natural right-back, but plays at left-back to let club captain John Brayford feature in the team. Hamer’s increasingly improving his all-around game and is often the target of Burton’s goal kicks and set pieces due to his immense size. His long throw caused a lot of problems to certain teams in the backend of last season, and likely will again this term.
MC: Tom Flanagan was announced as part of Sunderland’s new leadership group ahead of his fourth season with the club. Did you expect him to spend four years on Wearside when he first joined from Burton?
EW: Honestly, no.
Flanagan grew on me in the backend of the 17-18 season at Burton, though he was normally used as a right-footed left-back because Clough preferred others in his natural centre-back position.
I remember feeling quite surprised when I saw Sunderland sign him, though did understand it in a way as he had looked quite good in the last few months of the Championship.
Considering how different Sunderland’s squad looks now to how it did back in 18-19, I’m still rather surprised that he’s been present through all of your seasons at this level. I guess Lee Johnson must still see something in him.
MC: Who are the eleven players who you expect Hasslebaink to select, and what style of play can Lee Johnson’s team expect to face?
EW: I would expect a 4-2-3-1 line-up: Garratt (GK), Brayford, Leak, Shaughnessy, Hamer, O’Connor, Mancienne, Akins, Powell, Smith, Patrick.
In terms of what to expect stylewise, I would imagine Burton’s approach to this game could be similar to the one against Ipswich, fitness permitting.
Burton will likely look to press high early on, aiming to force mistakes in the Sunderland half and punish them with the direct running of their forward players.
They’ll look go make use of any throw-ins, corners or free-kicks they win. Delivery is likely to be sent into the box where a number of Burton’s defenders and bigger players will aim to get on the end of the deeper cross from corners, or get a key flick-on at the near post from Tom Hamer’s long throw.
I’m expecting Sunderland to have more of the ball. Burton are fine with that. The key thing for them will be restricting Sunderland’s touches in and around the penalty area and looking to make use of effective counter attacks, sometimes through more direct play.
It’s likely to be a battle on Tuesday.
MC: Lastly, Burton have always been a bogey team for Sunderland since our relegation from the Premier League - what is your honest prediction of the final score?
EW: A bogey team at the Stadium of Light maybe, not sure I’d agree as much at the Pirelli!
I think it’s important to remember the last meeting between these two. There were not many sides that comfortably saw Hasselbaink’s Burton off last season. Sunderland were one of them, particularly making good use of second phase set pieces.
I would like to think Burton are better prepared for dealing with Sunderland now, especially with the pressure of a relegation battle not on their shoulders like last time.
It’s possible that playing them in early season could work in Burton’s favour. Sunderland I don’t think are the full package yet. I think they still have more to add to that squad before the window’s shut. Burton on the other hand have done the vast majority of their business and have spent pre-season gelling them together. There may be better cohesion here at current, but I’d still say Sunderland’s team is better in terms of overall quality.
It’s two teams with 100% league records so far. That’s got to end for at least one of us. As much as I want to confidently seeing that Burton are picking up win 3 of 3, Hasslebaink’s side have to be wary of the quality Sunderland possess in a team that I don’t even think is fully put together yet.
Through gritted teeth, Burton Albion 1 Sunderland 2.