This weekend brings perhaps the toughest test of the season so far to Sincil Bank in the form of Sunderland.
Obviously, Premier League Everton were a tough test, but in the bread and butter of League One action, it doesn’t get much harder than this. Ipswich and Peterborough will be stern examinations as well, but Sunderland are the biggest club at this level beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Their squad oozes class from every pore and whilst their fans might not appreciate that right now, as an opponent you have little choice. They’ve got competition for places in every area of the park and two of their three subs from their last encounter would almost certainly start in our first XI – George Dobson and Will Grigg.
However, you can have ‘all the gear and no idea’ and some Black Cats’ fans seem to think that describes Jack Ross perfectly. Before we come on to Ross and his management, I wanted to break down their squad to give you an idea of what we’re up against this weekend. The graphic below shows their team from the recent 2-1 win against MK Dons, a team that showed SIX changes from their previous league fixture.
One constant throughout their League One stay has been Jon McLaughlin, the one-time Scotland keeper who moved down from Hearts at the same time as Jack Ross. Oddly, his Scotland cap came whilst he was a free agent, after Hearts and before the Stadium of Light. He’s the best keeper in this division and I don’t say that lightly.
On chink in their armour may be the relatively new defensive lineup. If they stick with the same back four, which I expect they will, it will be only the second time they’ve played together. Laurens De Bock has played 28 European fixtures for Club Brugge and was once called into the senior Belgium squad after serving time through all the age groups. His career has tailed off a bit and he’s only just made a loan move from Leeds.
Jordan Lynch was released by QPR last season and made his first start for Sunderland against MK Dons, whilst Jordan Willis moved there in the summer, as did Conor McLaughlin. I think there is a route to goal for us here which I’ll talk about later.
If the defence is an area I feel we have an advantage, then the central midfield is absolutely not, not one little bit. Max Power can play deep or more advanced and he started against MK Dons alongside Dylan McGeouch. The latter has Scotland caps and began his career at Celtic, but again he’s fighting to prove himself this season after struggling last time out. Power, who was sent off three times last season, has two goals in two and is as close to a star man as you can be in the absence of Aiden McGeady.
If either of those are shuffled elsewhere they can call of George Dobson, Walsall captain last season and an immense talent, or Grant Leadbitter who has enough experience to pull defence and attack together nicely.
Behind Charlie Wyke we could be forgiven for thinking it doesn’t look so bad; Lynden Gooch is decent but wasn’t fancied by Ross at the end of last season whilst Luke O’Nien is a right back by trade although he bagged in the last game. Chris Maguire is 30-years-old now and can be inconsistent, so where’s the worry? Oh, I almost forgot, Marc McNulty and Aiden McGeady are both back in training as well. Oops.
O’Nien is one worth mentioning; he’s a player I admire. He arrived from Wycombe (scored against us on the opening day of 2017/18) and he’s well-liked on Wearside. He’s flexible, he’s got a great attitude and he’s a real fighter. I would say he’s as close to a ‘cult hero’ as you’ll get in the current Sunderland squad.
They could go with Wyke up top, McNulty, maybe even Will Grigg. When your ‘maybe even‘ is a £4m striker, you’re in a good place. I’ve not even mentioned any of their exciting young players, or fringe players like Alim Ozturk or Tom Flanagan, both of whom would likely start for us tomorrow. It’s fair to say, they’ve got a strong side that can be set up in a number of different ways.
Therein lies one of the problems; Jack Ross really isn’t a tactical genius. Last season the 4-2-3-1 led to some wholly uneventful football matches, lots of uninspiring draws against teams who set up not to be beaten. Remember us at home against Cambridge, Northampton, Carlisle etc? Well, think that level of dissatisfaction in front of 30,000. Ross isn’t a popular figure at the Stadium of Light, or at least the loudest fans are making their voices heard. This year they’ve been held by Oxford, Bolton and Rotherham to name but three, each game increasing the pressure on Ross. He was even criticised heavily after they beat Accrington 3-1.
“It’s part of problem with this club,” he said. “We win 3-1 away from home, and always want to improve on what we do, I just fail to see sometimes what will make people satisfied. To continue to be critical of any sort of performance and result is negative and is almost like an anchor stopping the club moving forward.”
So, can we win the game? Bearing in mind Sunderland have lost just six league matches since their relegation, losing fewer than champions Luton last season and half as many as promoted Charlton, it’ll be a big ask. They’re not invincible, but they’re also incredibly strong.