Everyone has a list of teams they hate to face, and Sunderland is on my list, writes Tom Morton.
I suspect they are on the lists of a few Imps supporters. Just thinking about Sunderland reminds me of our December 2020 trip to the Stadium of light; the cold, the soulless crowd, and the utter thrashing made for a miserable afternoon.
This weekend’s game should be much more interesting. For a start, the weather will be warmer, the stadium will be full and buzzing. But there is also quite a lot of hope. Sunderland is our second “detour” from our run of relegation battle games but unlike Tuesday there should be some expectation of coming away with a result.
Sunderland seemed on track around Christmas to be challenging for promotion. They are still in the running but if you look at the form and games in hand of those around them there is a fight on for The Black Cats to finish in the playoffs. Since the turn of the year, their form has dipped considerably. It’s tempting to say we started that decline in January beating them 3-1 at the Stadium of Light. Since then they’ve only won four out of twelve games and slumped 6-0 away at Bolton. Even letting go of manager Lee Johnson at the end of January has not had an immediate impact.
Even better for the Imps, Sunderland’s away form is generally letting them down this season. They’ve won less than half of their games and actually have a negative goal difference. I think the reason is they are not scoring to their potential. The Black Cat’s xG away from home is 1.6, but they have only managed to score on average 1.42 goals per game. On the flip side, they are also conceding heavily (letting in on average 1.72 goals per game against an xG of 1.52). Or in other words; the statistics predict they should be winning a lot more away games than they are.
Expect Sunderland to line up 3-5-2 or 4-3-3. Either way, they prefer a quick break and pacey play out of midfield. One thing I don’t see is them loading the box. Many of their attacks seem to rely on speed and not giving the defence time to reset. Whoever plays in the centre back roles will need to manage the line closely and track runners. In recent games, our re-worked formation has struggled at times to pick up movement off the ball (costing us a couple of goals). One thing Sunderland are showing skill at is set pieces, they have some well-drilled corner tactics (including a neat variation on the now infamous queue-of-players that I think we should copy).
At the back, if the Black Cats play with three centre backs then I feel that will work to our strengths. I feel like it can leave space on the corners of the box which should be a good opportunity for Norton-Cuffy or even Whittaker to have an impact. One thing to note is their keeper. Sunderland’s long-time first-choice goalkeeper, Lee Burge, is struggling with a long term medical issue. So they are relying on two youngsters; Anthony Patterson (21) and Ron-Thorben Hoffman (22). Patterson was in goal for our win in January, and Hoffman has been in goal for some big losses. This is certainly something for us to target.
One question is; will we see Jermain Defoe? Having well-known names visit the bank is always a good novelty and Defoe counts as a genuine star player – this is his first time out of either the Premier League or Scottish Premiership. However, since signing in January he has made only six appearances (including two starts) and according to local press is struggling to make an impact.
It does look like Sunderland are struggling with some injury woes. Not only missing their first-choice keeper, but key playmaker Alex Pritchard is also looking doubtful for the weekend. That is great for us as Pritchard can be very dangerous roving around the edge of the box looking to pick out a quick pass. However, do watch out for striker Ross Stewart. He is on 22 goals already this season and just can’t seem to stop scoring.
We all remember our away encounter this season; an incredible team performance centred around a scintillating individual performance. I’ll wax lyrical for a moment, partly because in the sort of season we’ve had I think you need to relish the highlights and partly because I’ve been (fairly I think) a bit critical of Chris Maguire’s performance. But boy that match has to be a classic right? The ferocious, focused, aggressive play from Maguire, who successfully hammered home his point to Lee Johnson on the touchline, ruined any semblance of tactics The Black Cats might conjure up. Brilliant. Hopefully, it’s a form he can find at the weekend.
Sunderland are a team who have spent a lot of their history in the higher leagues (and boy do they go on about it), so our latest stint in League One is the first time we’ve faced them since the late 90s, and the first time we’ve been in the same league since the 60s. Of course, our first meeting this time around was that miserable 4-0 at the Stadium of Light. Other than that, though, its been fairly even over the last few seasons.
It will be an interesting game at the weekend. There are more important games coming, but it would be very handy and rather nice to do the double over Sunderland this season. Given that our away game at the stadium of light was one of our best performances of the season you would hope for an equally inspired approach on Saturday.