Three points last week against Rochdale sets us up nicely for a challenging run of fixtures until the New Year. It wasn’t a perfect performance, but getting the job done while the squad has been decimated by injuries and suspensions has provided a welcome boost of confidence and takes some of the pressure off needing to get results from the upcoming few games.
This away trip to Sunderland will be one of the biggest fixtures of the season for us. In a season that has arguably been lacking in the kind of results to convince that this team can stay up the top end of the division, a win here – which would also be our first on the road – would set an important milestone..
Mark Robins’ options with the team remain limited by injuries and suspension. However, with Kyle McFadzean and Liam Kelly likely to come back into the side, Jordy Hiwula reportedly back in training this week and Jamie Allen edging close to fitness, there is light at the end of the tunnel, with Maxime Biamou returning from his suspension after this game.
While it is hard to feel entirely comfortable with Kyle McFadzean coming back into the side given his recent propensity for giving away penalties, Declan Drysdale’s struggles – although he improved after his role in Rochdale’s goal – last week against Rochdale are likely to have done little to convince that experience isn’t the best option for this kind of game.
Having Liam Kelly available for this game feels important at both ends of the pitch. Kelly’s physical presence and defensive awareness provides that extra defensive shield that our back-line showed that it needed in his absence last week. In an attacking sense, Kelly frees Liam Walsh to focus on controlling possession and nipping forward, which he showed last week he can be rather effective at.
Although Jordan Shipley and Zain Westbrooke have demonstrated in the past two games that they can influence things playing further forward than normal, it still feels a less than ideal solution to a lack of attacking options. That loss of pace and directness could be especially apparent in a big away game, particularly with Amadou Bakayoko, despite his best efforts, in a rut in front of goal.
Last Time We Met
Our last trip to the Stadium of Light was the performance of the season, with the front four of Jordy Hiwula, Amadou Bakayoko, Luke Thomas and Bright Enobakhare reaching their very top levels in enthralling fashion as they combined for our three first-half goals.
Although it still felt like an emphatic victory, the defence’s inability to deal with Sunderland’s deep and accurate crossing meant that the two teams entered half-time level and with Sunderland then controlling much of the second-half.
Fortunately, the second-half saw us score two goals at just about the perfect moments to break up Sunderland’s momentum. First, with Jordan Shipley striking 10 minutes into the half and then Conor Chaplin with a well-taken finish 10 minutes after Max Power had equalised for the Black Cats.
Manager – Phil Parkinson
Sunderland had been looking for a manager to introduce a more attacking brand of football after a year and a bit of dull, but generally effective, stuff under Jack Ross. In that regard, Phil Parkinson seemed an odd, slightly panicky, choice as manager, generally seen as a proponent of the long-ball game, which has put the former Bradford and Bolton boss on the back-foot.
While Parkinson has won both of his league games at the Stadium of Light, two league defeats on the road along with exits from the League Cup, EFL Trophy and FA Cup over the past few weeks – playing close to his strongest in each competition – puts the new manager under big pressure already to get a win here to buy him enough time to mould the squad to his liking.
Who To Look Out For?
With Will Grigg and Marc McNulty to call upon up front, the creative talents of Aiden McGeady, Chris Maguire and Lynden Gooch, some very strong central midfielders for this level in Grant Leadbitter, Max Power, George Dobson and Dylan McGeouch, it would be foolish to write-off things clicking for Sunderland in attack. The problem is possibly that too many of those players require teams to be built around them and there is a clash in terms of the type of football that brings the best out of those individuals.
This season has seen the harder-working, non-flair players in Sunderland’s squad come to the fore as a result of those key performers struggling for form. The versatile Luke O’Nien has played with commitment wherever he’s been asked to play – mainly between right-back and a central midfield role. Ex-Sky Blues centre-back Jordan Willis has also come in for praise as a result of his generally reliable level of performances and has formed a steady partnership with the experienced Joel Lynch.
Elsewhere, the work-rate and pace of wide forward Duncan Watmore could be where Sunderland look to cause us problems playing out from the back. In goal, another ex-Sky Blue, Lee Burge, has seemingly benefited from the blank slate that comes with moving to a new club and has wrestled the number one spot from the out-of-form Jon McLaughlin.
Areas To Exploit
The biggest area to target for this game is the increasingly toxic mood around Sunderland. They are out of all the cup competitions, they are in danger of losing touch with the top six and they’ve already made a managerial change that has had little impact on their trajectory. If we can seize the initiative early on, the crowd may well turn on the team.
Of course, Sunderland have several players who are individual match-winners and their strong home record this season versus our winless away one means that we will have to put in a big performance to get the win here. This is a crucial game in Sunderland’s season and we have the power to provide them with a turning point, either positive or negative, depending on our level of performance.