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North Carolina v Sunderland: Pre-Season Friendly

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Editorial: Starting lineups, the need for experience and off-field challenges...

We’ll be closer to answers on all three by this time next week.

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Just how close are we to the starting XI for Ipswich?

On Saturday, the lads face Real Mallorca in a friendly at the Stadium of Light, and we’ll get a real insight into exactly what Tony Mowbray’s thinking ahead of the season kicking off a week later.

The five games so far have been very much a fitness-building exercise, but a number of players have staked a claim for a place in the season’s first starting lineup, and I reckon what we see on Saturday will give us an indication of how we’ll line up against Ipswich in a fortnight’s time.

One player who’s impressed so far this pre-season is Chris Rigg, and it’ll be interesting to see how we manage him over the coming months.

Although it’ll be a lot to ask of a sixteen-year-old to be a Championship regular, he’s clearly talented enough to be a regular in the squad, and I’m looking forward to seeing how he progresses. He’s got everything really – he can pass, run with the ball and score goals, and he’s going to be a huge asset for us.

San Antonio v Sunderland Pe-Season Friendly
Rigg’s so far impressed in pre-season
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The most recent two games have seen the majority of the lads play a full ninety minutes, which raised some eyebrows as it’s not the norm for pre-season games. However, you can see the logic, as how else will players get fit enough to play ninety minutes when the real action gets going?

Pierre Ekwah scored an excellent goal against New Mexico, and he’s another who I’m excited to watch when the season kicks off. However, Tony Mowbray seemed a little frustrated with him when he was interviewed after the game.

Ekwah made a huge impression when he came into the team last season, but Mowbray had voiced concern about how he strolls through games, and the need for him to get up to speed in order to play ‘proper’ football.

Hopefully it all clicks for Ekwah because he’s a player who could be an absolute star for us this season.

New Mexico United v Sunderland: Pre-Season Friendly
How important could Ekwah be for us this season?
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Although a number of players have staked their claim, I actually think the team’s pretty easy to predict, but it’s the midfield area that poses the biggest question for Mowbray as he looks to get his team sorted.

In reality, barring injury, you’d think that Patterson, Hume, Batth, Ballard, Cirkin, Neil, Ekwah, Clarke, Roberts and Hemir are pretty much nailed-on starters against Ipswich.

That leaves one place up for grabs – essentially Amad’s replacement – and at present Bellingham, Rigg, Matete, Pritchard, Ba and Lihadji are battling it out for that role.

It could be considered a concern that we’ve only brought in one player so far - Hemir – who’s definitely going to come into the first team immediately (and even that’s because of injury).

However, I think it’s a positive, not least because the team will have a good understanding;

We don’t need or want seismic change in pre-season, and as we’ve witnessed already, the young players in the team are improving all the time. Batth and Pritchard, for example, won’t have got any better since we last saw them, but every other player should have, and that’s a hugely exciting prospect.

For what it’s worth, my guess at this stage is it’ll be Ba – however, Pritchard’s been in excellent form in pre-season and Mowbray could well value his experience.

Are we missing the X(perience) factor though?

Speaking of experience, it’s a topic that’s been discussed at length this week, and Mowbray himself has talked about it too.

The head coach said he wants an experienced defensive midfielder, and I have to say that I agree with him on the experience side of things, at least.

While it’s great to have all of these youngsters playing regularly, I’d like to see us add some experience. By that, I don’t mean spending millions of pounds on a gnarly thirty two-year-old, but someone who’s twenty six or twenty seven and has a couple of hundred games under their belt.

At present, only Batth, O’Nien, Pritchard, Roberts and Gooch could really be described as ‘experienced’ players and only Batth and Roberts are almost certain to be regulars.

We need good voices in the dressing room to help guide the youngsters when things don’t go our way, and the youngsters also need that to develop and progress.

However, I don’t think we need a defensive midfielder at all – I think we’re well covered in midfield – but I’d love to see us sign a centre forward who falls into that category. We urgently need reinforcements up front and hopefully we’ll see one or two strikers come in sooner rather than later – ideally someone proven.

On that score, we simply can’t repeat the mistake we made in the past two transfer windows and leave ourselves short up front. Also, given Ross Stewart’s injury and contract situation, we pretty much have to crack on as if he wasn’t here anymore.

Off-field difficulties continue, and this week will be telling

While the club’s making huge strides on the field, off the field, we’re still acting as if we’re making things up as we’re going along.

We’ve covered the inadequacies at length on the site recently, but from the new strip debacle to the pathetically communicated digital ticket launch, the club continues to remind me of this Simpsons line.

Tomorrow, the club’s hosting an open training session, during which the new ticketing system will be tested out, and then on Saturday, it’ll get its first ‘real’ outing.

There’ll doubtless be problems and hopefully they’ll get ironed out before the real action starts.

However, the message is clear: off the field, from merchandising to ticketing and marketing to communications, there’s got to be a massive improvement. Off the field, we’re being run like a crap corner shop, and it’s simply not good enough.

Credit where it’s due, however – the social media content the team’s been creating in pre-season has been superb.

It’s a joy to watch, has shown the superb atmosphere within the squad and is exactly the sort of stuff we should be sharing.


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