The resilience of this team was once again demonstrated in claiming a point against Rotherham United on Tuesday night. After starting poorly and conceding a soft opening goal, it would have been easy to fold, instead, we rallied enough in the second-half to level the scores and could have nicked all three points.
It keeps us in a strong position heading into another important game, this time against a Sunderland in impressive recent form. While we don’t necessarily have to win here, with so many of our remaining fixtures against teams in promotion or play-off contention, we could see our promotion hopes slowly slip away from us if we cannot reliably beat teams of the ilk of Sunderland.
Mark Robins threw out a slight curveball in his team selection against Rotherham United by pairing Matt Godden with Maxime Biamou in attack instead of sticking with the four-man central midfield formation that we have been playing over the past few months. While it saw us lose an element of control, having something extra up front helped get us level once we managed to get on top for a spell.
With Sunderland playing a back three, sticking with a front two may make our forwards easier to mark than if we reverted to our more fluid system. Having extra bodies in midfield would also have the benefit of overloading Sunderland in the centre of the park, further aiding us in our attempts to stretch their back-line.
Based on recent team selections, Jamie Allen seems likely to come into the team for Maxime Biamou. Allen’s energy and the timing of his runs with and without the ball could be particularly useful in stretching Sunderland’s defence, although he perhaps offers less control than we would have with either Jordan Shipley or Zain Westbrooke in the side.
Last Time We Met
If we are to fall short of automatic promotion this season, our meeting with Sunderland earlier in the season was the kind of missed opportunity to take all three points away from home that we consistently spurned during the opening months of the campaign.
A controlled first-half performance, capped off by a Dominic Hyam goal, suggested we were set to get our first away win of the season. The team seemed to run into a mental block in the second-half, failing to convert chances to kill the game off then becoming overly cautious and nervy. Just when it looked like we would get the win regardless, a series of failures to clear the ball in the penalty area presented Benjamin Kimpioka with a tap-in for his first, and thus far only, Sunderland goal for the equaliser.
Manager – Phil Parkinson
After a Russell Slade-esque run of two wins from his opening 14 games in charge of Sunderland, Phil Parkinson looked set to be the latest in a long line of managers who’ve failed to turn the Black Cats around. However, an incredible run of form since Boxing Day of just one defeat in 13 has taken the club from its lowest ever league position to a realistic shot of automatic promotion, re-asserting Phil Parkinson’s calibre as a manager at this level.
That run of form has been built on a defensive solidity that has provided the platform for their attacking players to win games with key individual contributions. The football hasn’t exactly been free-flowing, but having looked in complete disarray three months ago, the level of organisation and motivation Parkinson has engendered has been particularly impressive.
Who To Look Out For?
Phil Parkinson is reaping the rewards for building the team around Chris Maguire, who had looked unfit and disinterested earlier in the season. A supreme technician who can leave players for dead despite having little pace and who can place a ball on a penny, Maguire has ten goals and 11 assists to his name this season – only Ivan Toney of Peterborough United has contributed more.
Maguire has space to work his magic either floating out wide or moving into a number 10 position due to the physical presence of target-man Charlie Wyke and the pace and skill of Lynden Gooch, who occupy defenders in very different ways. While Sunderland have been particularly threatening on the counter-attack recently, the bursting runs of wing-backs Luke O’Nien and Denver Hume provide extra bodies in the box when they build spells of pressure.
In defence, improved form from goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin and the January loan signing of centre-back Bailey Wright have made Sunderland a tougher prospect to get past. While Wright is injured for a month or so, that defensive solidity has been largely been retained due to the form of the wide centre-backs in their back three, Tom Flanagan and former Sky Blue Jordan Willis.
Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost
Sunderland are incredibly reliant on their attacking three of Charlie Wyke, Lynden Gooch and, particularly, Chris Maguire for goals and assists, finding ways to stop them is going to be the challenge here. There is a danger that our back three could be left one-vs-one against Sunderland’s forwards, which is why the defensive awareness of Liam Kelly and Liam Walsh is going to be important – especially in slowing down Sunderland on the counter-attack.
The other part of the challenge for us in this game will be in breaking down Sunderland’s defence. While we are likely to have extended spells of possession here, Sunderland may well be relatively content in allowing us the ball, knowing that they can sit in, slow us down, and mark our forwards out of the game.
This is going to be a test of our use of the ball to move around a defence that has conceded just six goals and kept eight clean sheets in its past 13 games.