After a mixed bag in pre-season, the real stuff begins today at the Stadium of Light. Alex Neil’s managed to add a couple of players this week – Alex Bass and Ellis Simms, although I don’t expect either to make the starting XI today.
It’s always difficult second-guessing Alex Neil’s lineups and formation, but I think we’ll play a back four more often than not this season. Jack Clarke is a natural attacker and I just don’t think we’d have signed him – or he would have signed – had we been planning on playing with three at the back every week.
Goalkeeper: Anthony Patterson
Despite the arrival of Alex Bass – who, given his contract length, has evidently been signed with the long-term in mind – Anthony Patterson will start in goal today. He developed well last season, improved as he gained experience, and has been given the number one shirt for the season. The position is his to lose, it seems, and I’m looking forward to watching how he develops this season.
Defence: Trai Hume, Daniel Ballard, Danny Baath, Dennis Cirkin
It’s a little bit of a concern that defence is the one area of the team with a number of question marks in terms of personnel. I think Cirkin is the only defender guaranteed to start today, and the question is who plays alongside him. By the way, I think Cirkin will have a really good season, and we’ll see a level of performance that’s stepped up a notch or two compared to last season. On the opposite flank, Lynden Gooch finished the season at right back, but Trai Hume’s impressed in pre-season and could well get the nod. In the centre of defence, we’ve got Wright and Baath – who finished the season strongly – as well as new signings Ballard and Alese to select from. For me, Wright’s not looked completely up to speed in pre-season and Ballard has looked good. I’d go for Ballard and Baath, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if Wright figured from the off.
Midfield: Corry Evans, Dan Neil, Luke O’Nien
Corry Evans is nailed on to start, and rightly so – he was excellent towards the end of the season and does a lot of donkey work that often goes unnoticed. Luke O’Nien often played alongside him in the latter part of the season, and I have a feeling that Dan Neil will get the nod today, too. Neil’s a good passer of the ball, has a nice intelligence to his play and is a genuine talent – we’ve got to give him a good run this season. Although probably not the ‘play till you drop’ approach of last year.
I think we’ll start with a three in midfield today to ensure we give ourselves a good footing in the game and not be overrun in the midfield. Both Neil and O’Nien are capable of playing a more advanced role and getting up to support Stewart, so I think we’ll see Evans sitting in behind the other two. The benefit of this is he can drop in and provide a base for the two full backs to push up almost as wing backs.
Elliot Embleton is another who could come into the reckoning – I really like him playing in that slightly deeper role and after his goal set us on the way to promotion in the play-off final it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him in the starting XI today.
Attackers: Patrick Roberts, Ross Stewart, Jack Clarke
Our attack is the area of the field that we’re strongest in, and in Roberts, Pritchard, Embleton, Stewart and Clarke – and now Simms – I believe we have an attacking lineup that’s a match for most in the league. I’m really looking forward to watching them play this season, especially Roberts and Clarke. When the two of them came in in January, they were severely lacking in match fitness, and it was only towards the end of the season that we began to see the best of them. Now they are both settled and have a full pre-season behind them I think we’ll see them at their best. Pritchard, too, has a point to prove and is a fantastic player, but I have a feeling he could start this one on the bench.
With the signing of Simms we finally have an additional striker, and someone who can both cover for Ross Stewart and play alongside him, too. That said, I think we’ll start with Stewart as our lone striker today, ably supported from wide by Roberts and Clarke, with O’Nien and Neil providing bodies from midfield. Again, it’ll be interesting to see how Stewart adapts to Championship life. He’s 26 now, so should be coming into his prime, and a big season lies ahead of him. I think he’ll do well. We need him to.
Just a final thought here, too. While there has been a lot of talk about needing reinforcements, I do think the team and squad we’ve got are pretty strong. We’ve got a lot of options in place and I don’t think that should be underestimated. If the team above plays today, we’ve still got Gooch, Wright, Alese, Embleton, Dajaku, Matete, Winchester, Simms, Diamond and Pritchard waiting in the wings. Plenty of options there, and with another full-back and keeper – and maybe a Nathan Broadhead – I reckon we’ll do OK under Alex Neil.