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Sunderland v Gillingham - Sky Bet League One

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Starting XI: Does Alex Neil stick or twist for today’s vital game against Cambridge?

While today’s game is not technically a must-win, it certainly feels as though it is. So, how will Alex Neil set the team up this afternoon?

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Alex Neil sprang a surprise on Monday by deploying Luke O’Nien at left wing-back and shifting Jack Clarke over to the right. Granted, it worked from a defensive perspective, but we lost some offensive ability on the left and Clarke had a poor game out on the right.

Clearly, Neil’s approach last time out was must not lose, but today the onus is certainly on the lads to get the three points. So, how will we line up?

Here’s how I think we might start the game.

Goalkeeper: Anthony Patterson

Alex Neil’s answer to the pre-game press conference question over Thorben Hoffmann’s non-selection demonstrated that Patterson’s got the starting shirt on ability alone, and to be fair to the lad he’s looking more comfortable every game. He didn’t have loads to do against Argyle, but still made a couple of smart saves to get yet another clean sheet.

Sunderland Training Session
Burge has been back on the bench in the past couple of games, but Patterson will surely keep his place today
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Defence: Carl Winchester, Bailey Wright, Dennis Cirkin

I’ve been really surprised Danny Baath hasn’t had more time on the field in recent weeks, but Neil seems to be quite comfortable with Winchester, Wright and Cirkin lining up in a back three. It doesn’t quite work for me – Cirkin looks uncomfortable there, and given we’re left with a choice of O’Nien, Clarke, or – at a push – Gooch, to play left wing-back I find it a bit puzzling. Still, it’s working insofar as clean sheets go anyway – but I can’t help feeling we’d be better off all-round if Batth – or Doyle – came into the centre of defence and we pushed Cirkin on a bit.

Plymouth Argyle v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Cirkin’s playing slightly out of position at present, but to be fair to him he’s doing well, all things considered
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Midfield: Luke O’Nien, Corry Evans, Jay Matete, Jack Clarke

I was surprised that Gooch was left on the bench while Clarke played right wing-back last week, but I expect Clarke to move back over to the left today. On the other flank, it’s a choice between O’Nien and Gooch, and I suspect O’Nien will get the nod. In the centre of midfield, Corry Evans has been excellent over the past month or so – this system, and his more defined role in the centre of midfield, really suits him – and it’s clear Neil values him as a character as well as a player. Alongside him, Jay Matete was influential last time out – his individual battle with Plymouth’s excellent Panutche Camara was a compelling sub-plot – and the urgency he brings to the team will be important today.

Plymouth Argyle v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Matete’s battle with Camara on Monday was interesting to watch
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Forwards: Alex Pritchard, Nathan Broadhead, Ross Stewart

Alex Pritchard has been a huge, huge miss recently, and if he’s fit he surely comes straight back in. We’ve missed his off-the-ball work as much as his quality on it, and Ross Stewart, in particular, has suffered as a consequence – his supply line has dried right up. Of course, Neil might be tempted to leave Pritchard on the bench today, looking ahead to Tuesday’s fixture and, hopefully, the play-offs, but I suspect we’ll see him in the starting XI today, maybe getting an hour. Up top, Broadhead and Stewart will most likely continue. Both looked leggy on Monday, and in truth could do with a rest – however, it’d be a real gamble to leave either out of the starting XI for such a crucial game, and Neil doesn’t strike me as a manager who’d take such an unnecessary risk.

Charlton Athletic v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Will Pritchard return today?
Photo by Ivan Yordanov/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images


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