Preview: Sunderland

The big kick-off is here!

Coventry City head into a new season trying to further the remarkable progress the club has made under Mark Robins over the past five years. There is caution heading into the new campaign, with doubts as to whether a free transfer and three loan signings makes the team in any way better than one that flagged rather severely over the second half of last season. There is also optimism, coming from the sense that this team was very close to doing something memorable last yet and hasn’t lost any of its key players, yet.

An away trip to newly-promoted Sunderland is among the fixtures that few teams in this division would have wanted on the opening day of the season. The Black Cats will have momentum and a raucous home crowd in their favour in this game, it will be up to Coventry City to demonstrate that the two years of Championship experience this team has over their opponents counts for something. This will be a much stronger indication as to this Sky Blues side’s quality than the 100% pre-season.

Expected Line-Up

Possible Line-Up (3-4-1-2): Moore; Hyam, McFadzean, Panzo; Dabo, Allen, Hamer, Bidwell; O'Hare; Godden, Gyokeres.
Possible Line-Up

Without many major changes to the squad over the summer, the starting XI for this game is going to look very familiar in most areas. There are one or two places that are up for debate but Mark Robins looks unlikely to unleash many surprises with the shape or player selection for this game.

If there is to be a shock with the starting line-up it could well be in goal, where Mark Robins has looked to put pressure on Simon Moore’s place in the side. Last season’s number one ended the campaign out of the team and has had to share goalkeeping responsibilities over pre-season with number two, Ben Wilson. It is apparent to most that Moore is, by some distance, the superior goalkeeper, whether the manager still sees it that way may become clearer once the teams are named.

In the back three, Jonathan Panzo looks set to take over as first-choice left-sided centre-back for the start of the campaign. Kyle McFadzean looks like pretty much the only option to start in the middle, with it being between Dominic Hyam and Michael Rose to play on the right. It looks like a genuinely close competition between Hyam and Rose for that spot in the side, with the former probably edging it right now.

At wing-back, Fankaty Dabo currently has something of a free run on the right due to speculation linking Todd Kane to a move away from the club. On the left, Tayo Adaramola has probably arrived a little too late to be in contention to start ahead of Jake Bidwell.

The attacking set-up for this game is likely to be a 3-4-1-2, with Matt Godden partnering Viktor Gyokeres in attack, with Callum O’Hare operating just behind the front two. The only place in the team that looks up for grabs is Gustavo Hamer’s midfield partner, with Jamie Allen seeming to have had the edge in pre-season team selections over Ben Sheaf.

Last Time We Met

It was the win that effectively secured the League One title for Coventry City, in their last ‘home’ game at St Andrew’s in front of fans. The Sky Blues were of to a great start against Sunderland, with Jamie Allen sliding Matt Godden through in the second minute of the game for the lead. There were further chances soon after, but Sunderland eventually got into the game and forced Marko Marosi into excellent saves in order to maintain the Sky Blues’ lead.

After riding that storm out, Coventry City regained their control of proceedings for much of the second-half. Hearts were in mouths, however, as a deflected Max Power strike looked to have drawn Sunderland level with 15 minutes to go. Fortunately, the referee spotted an egregiously offside Luke O’Nien, killing off any hope of a Black Cats comeback. As the final whistle blew, it was apparent that nothing was going to stop this Sky Blues side from claiming the League One title.

The Opposition

The Manager – Alex Neil

The Scot will go down as the man who saved Sunderland from themselves last January. Getting the job after it was reportedly turned down by the popular TV pundit, Roy Keane, Alex Neil demonstrated just how much of an impact a competent and smart manager can have at a football club. Focusing on organisation, effort and a sterner mentality, Neil’s Sunderland rarely excited in their run to League One promotion, via the play-offs, last year, but have lost just one game since he took charge.

Neil looks to be sticking to the same template as he prepares Sunderland for their return to the Championship. Transfer activity this summer has been relatively modest, with Northern Ireland international centre-back, Daniel Ballard, the most notable purchase, and the squad still looks a little thin in a few key areas. However, a tight, compact team-unit is likely to suit Alex Neil’s style as he looks to make the Black Cats a combative, energetic outfit that will be a tough nut to crack in the second-tier this season.

Who To Look Out For?

Possible Line-Up (4-2-3-1): Patterson; Gooch, Wright, Ballard, Cirkin; Neil, Evans; Roberts, Pritchard, Clarke; Stewart.
Possible Line-Up

Sunderland’s formula for promotion last year was simple but effective. Keep it tight at the back, use pace in wide areas, harness the creativity of Alex Pritchard and/or Elliot Embleton, all to leverage Ross Stewart’s goal threat in the final third. That dynamic has yet to be affected by the club’s summer recruitment, with the hope being that what proved effective in League One can continue to be so in the Championship.

A lot is resting at the moment on Ross Stewart making the step up to Championship football, given that he is the only senior striker on the club’s books. There are a lot of reasons to believe that will be the case, with the giant Scot and impressively hard-working and skilful player given his stature. The main source of concern with Stewart is that he tended to score in streaks last year, suggesting that he may be something of a confidence player who will need a good start this year to get going.

The other make-or-break area of the team is in defence, with academy youngster, Anthony Patterson, seemingly having been backed to continue as number one goalkeeper after stepping up impressively during the run-in last year. In front of Patterson, the experience of Danny Batth and Bailey Wright is going to be important in steering him through a potentially tricky step-up, although mobility is a concern with that duo. Having often played full-backs and central midfielders as part of a back three, the additions of Daniel Ballard and Aji Alese this summer provide Alex Neil with better cover and assuredness in their back-line.

Whether Sunderland stick with that back three formula or move to a four in defence looks to be Alex Neil’s key consideration over pre-season. If they continue with a back three, they will look to utilise non-natural defenders in the wing-back positions, likely to be Lynden Gooch and Jack Clarke, if they opt for a back four, it provides Ross Stewart with better support in attack at the risk of leaving Bailey Wright and/or Danny Batth exposed for a lack of pace in their back-line.

Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost

Leaving aside just how much of a factor Sunderland’s momentum following promotion and a home crowd may have, this is a game that will come down to which team makes the best use of the ball. Sunderland are likely to be content to let Coventry City have the ball for long periods of the game, but will look to break up the Sky Blues’ rhythm when they get into their half and wait for opportunities for their pacey wide players to get them up the pitch on the counter-attack.

This may be where having Ben Sheaf in the midfield, ahead of Jamie Allen, could be more productive, as Sheaf is likely to make better use of the time on the ball he will be allowed in deeper areas of the pitch. However, it will be important for Coventry City that they can get the ball into Viktor Gyokeres as quickly as possible, as he should be able to unsettle Sunderland’s defence and create space for others if given the opportunity to run at them. If the Sky Blues are too slow in possession, Gyokeres will be easier to contain, possession will end up with the wing-backs, leading to hopeful crosses into a well-defended penalty area.

The other key area of the game will be the battle between Ross Stewart and the Coventry City back-line. Sunderland’s lack of an out-and-out strike partner for Stewart may make the Scot a little easier to contain, as there will be two extra centre-backs available to mark him, however, Stewart will cause problems if Sunderland get on the counter-attack and the Sky Blues’ back-line has to scramble in cover.

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