With the 2023/24 championship season looming large there is the usual feeling of anticipation that comes with every season opener.
The success over the past couple of years provides some extra edge, and there is a real sense of expectation surrounding the club. In our bid for promotion, the result against Ipswich will set the tone and provide an idea of what to expect from the lads across the course of the campaign.
There is some potential for our 5-2 defeat at Hartlepool United on Tuesday night to put a dampener on an otherwise useful pre-season period, and I really don’t think there’s any need for panic following our shoddy display at the Suit Direct Stadium.
To me, it seemed clear that the players were far more concerned about avoiding injury as opposed to winning the game, with Sunday’s encounter, as well as the upcoming season, clearly in the forefront of their minds.
We looked decidedly pedestrian in all areas, with 50/50’s being made totally void in the lead up to at least a couple of their goals. Not to worry though, Mowbray should get the players up for it and I think we’ll get to witness a totally different display at the weekend.
We can also take a couple of silver linings from Tuesday’s performance, most notably the sumptuous defence-splitting pass from Nectar Triantis to assist Bennette for our second. I suppose it also makes Mowbray’s job easier, he won’t need to make any tough selection decisions. And sorry for clutching at straws.
What team should Mowbray pick?
My XI to start against Ipswich: Patterson, Hume, Ballard, O’Nien, Cirkin, Ekwah, Neil, Roberts, Clarke, Pritchard, Hemir.
Admittedly, this looks like a relatively ‘safe’ starting line-up, with the omission of almost all the young talent we’ve bought in throughout the summer window. I just feel as though a bit more experience and a good understanding of Mowbray’s system will be crucial to get the lads off to a winning start.
The return of Dan Ballard at centre half is very welcome. With Seelt out injured and Triantis still integrating, it’s difficult not to go with the reliable Luke O’Nien to join Ballard in central defence. The performances of Hume and Cirkin towards the back end of last season means that the full backs pretty much pick themselves.
The same thinking applies to my midfield selection, with the mainstays of last season’s run in, Dan Neil and Pierre Ekwah, slotting into defensive midfield. Hopefully Mowbray takes the shackles off and allows these two to interchange and play box-to-box. Both are more than capable of receiving the ball in the middle of the park and playing that initial forward pass, along with driving the ball forward at their feet. It would be frustrating to have either player concreated to a defensive roll, given their abilities going forward.
In this moment Bellingham is yet to prove himself, so won’t be kicking either player out, but I for one will be keeping a very keen eye if he is introduced during the second half.
Going forward it’s a similar story. Of course, the departure of Amad Diallo is a huge blow and recent signing Bradley Dack has a huge task to fill the boots of the Ivorian international. For now, I’d be inclined to go with our proven players, meaning it’s Alex Pritchard to get the nod. This is not to rule out Abdoullah Ba completely, rather to save him for coming off the bench, where he is better suited.
Regarding speculation surrounding Jack Clarke, there is no reason to believe he is particularly distracted beyond the odd report suggesting links to Burnley. It shouldn’t impact his performance and if anything, could provide a stage to impress any Premier League clubs watching, or encourage Burnley to up their frankly disrespectful £10 million valuation of the winger.
The endless Ross Stewart saga is yet to be resolved but after more failed contract negotiations I’m pretty much resigned to his imminent departure. We were fine without him for the majority of last season so with the arrivals of Hemir and Eliezer Mayenda from Benfica and French second tier outfit Sochaux respectively, any worries surrounding our strike force have been snuffed. With Hemir’s strong pre-season form, which included a goal against La Liga side Mallorca, he is the obvious choice for Sunday.
There is no doubt that Ipswich are rightly highly respected. We should know as well as anyone about the threat of a newly promoted side, especially one who finished second with 98 points last season, are surely brimming with confidence, and possesses that ruthless winning mentality. Kieran McKenna’s side scored the most goals and shipped the least in League One last season, indicating that their newly promoted status does not mean they should be taken lightly.
Daniel Storey, the chief sportswriter for ‘i’, described Ipswich as a side who specialise in possession retention before looking for a decisive pass from midfield into the final third. Without the ball they opt for intensive pressing, somewhat matching our own playing style, which should make for an intriguing tactical battle.
Ones to watch include Connor Chaplin, who poses their primary attacking threat and top scored with 29 goals last term, along with Nathan Broadhead who of course makes a return to the Stadium of Light. It’s fair to say we all know the danger he poses.
Another name that caught the eye after a look through their squad came in the form of Chelsea loanee Omari Hutchinson. I distinctly remember the 19-year-old from an old YouTube compilation posted by the F2 Freestylers, where he was apparently touted as the next wonderkid. Not sure whether he’ll feature, but it would be an interesting one if his abilities are showcased, and perhaps one for us to think about further down the line.
They have however suffered an injury blow, with first choice keeper Christian Walton being ruled out due to a suspected foot injury.
With such dangerous opposition making the trip up north it’s tough to doubt that this will be a tight encounter. I want to be positive and predict a 2-1 Sunderland win, so I’ll go for that, but the quality of opposition and the sheer unpredictability of this league leaves me stumped.
One thing is certain though - the 40,000+ fans in attendance are in for an opening day belter.