|Opposition Preview - Sunderland (Home)
Written by ad_wilkin on Thursday, 11th Jan 2024 15:23
It’s yet another game on Sky as Sunderland visit Portman Road in the reverse of the first game of the season.
The Black Cats come into this one having been blown away 3-0 in the FA Cup by rivals Newcastle but currently occupy the last play-off place with 40 points.
They are one of the top non-relegated teams in the division and are sure to provide Town with are stern test in this one
Previous Game (Sunderland 1 – 2 Ipswich Town)
A tight affair at the Stadium of Light saw Town get their first three points of the season on the board. An end-to-end start to the game saw Vaclav Hladky called upon to make a number of saves and also Jobe Bellingham sky a very presentable chance over the bar following an excellent shot from Piere Ekwah as Sunderland built some early pressure.
But it was Town who eventually broke the deadlock. From a long throw, Leif Davis hit a shot from the edge of the area which Nathan Broadhead expertly steered the ball past Anthony Patterson into the net just before half-time.
Not long into the start of the second half, Broadhead then turned provider, finding a pocket of space and delivering a pinpoint ball into George Hirst who slammed past the keeper to score his first ever Championship goal.
Conor Chaplin then had a long-range lob hit the bar as the tide really turned in Town’s favour and the Blues started to dominate the game.
They continued their dominance as Davis escaped down the left and Trai Hume received his second yellow card of the game, clipping the left-backs heels as he ran across him.
Bizarrely this fired-up the Black Cats and Town ended up under siege from the ten men. Sunderland pulled a goal back when a Dennis Cirkin pull-back was turned in by Dan Neil and it took an excellent Hladky spread save in the last minutes to keep hold of the three points.
Sunderland finished the game with 66% possession and more shots and clear-cut chances than Town but Ipswich were clinical in putting away their chances and that’s what saw them to the win.
As this was the first game of the season, there was the remainder of the summer transfer window and Sunderland brought in a few more players before its end and now with the January window now open have been linked to a few more, competing with Town on some of the rumoured links.
The biggest change, like a few other clubs around this period, has been the manager. Tony Mowbray was sacked at the beginning of December after a run of poor results. Mike Dodds took charge for three games before the controversial appointment of Michael Beale, who was without a job having been dismissed by Scottish giants Rangers.
The Beale era has kicked-off with two wins, one draw and a loss in the league and seems to have galvanised the side a little bit from the poor form.
A former assistant to Steven Gerrard, Beale will be hoping to refind the form that saw him take a QPR side that is largely similar to the one struggling at the bottom of the table up near the top of the league at the start of lasr season. He left the Hoops with a 40.91% win ratio.
Since taking over from Mowbray, if you look at the stats not too much has changed compared to the way that the former boss wanted the Black Cats to play the game and he is more of a continuation rather than a revolution, brought in to attempt to motivate a side of quality young players over the line this season.
When these sides first played each other, Sunderland were still working on bringing players in in the striker departments with Luis Semedo their only recognised player in that position.
In the end, they managed to bring in Nathan Burstow on loan from Chelsea and made a permanent move for Ukrainian Nazariy Rusyn from Zorya Luhansk.
Neither of those players have managed to nail down the central striker spot with eight starts for Burstow and five for Rusyn with Mowbray often experimenting with playing a false nine, something Town may have to turn to in these next couple of matches.
It looks like Rusyn is going to be Beale’s trusted man having started the last two games up top and got off the mark with a goal against Preston, prodding home at the near post having got across his man.
He scored 21 goals in 49 appearances for Zorya Luhansk and will be hoping to replicate that form with a run of games in the Championship.
The other player who has joined is Timothee Pembele. The 21-year-old right-back has pedigree having signed on a free from French side Paris St Germain, but is clearly one from the future having only made two starts.
That French connection continued with the addition of Adil Aouchiche from Lorient to add more depth to the attacking ranks.
The attacking midfielder has only made four starts but has become a regular off of the bench. His addition has reduced the minutes of 16-year-old talent Chris Rigg, who’s not featured since October and will likely be looking for a loan in this window.
Other than that the side hasn’t changed too much with a pretty consistent team having featured for most of the season, so there shouldn’t be too many surprises to deal with.
Players to Watch
Jack Clarke (Goals 12, Assists 2, Successful dribbles per game 3.7)
Jack Clarke is still without doubt Sunderland's star player and one of the league's top performers. He’s the top dribbler in the league with more progressive carries than any other player. He’s also top marksman from the spot with five of his 12 goals coming from converted penalties.
He was largely kept quiet in the first fixture by a combination of Janoi Donacien and Wes Burns but with the former injured it will be interest to see how Town look to combat his threat this time round.
Town will likely look to cut off the supply to him because once he gets on the run he can be very effective. This was something that they were great at in the away game reducing him to only seven progressive carries and winning three out of four attempts when he tried to take on a defender.
Pritchard has found himself getting a run of games in the team since the appointment of Beale, replacing the injured Patrick Roberts on the right-hand side.
He scored a rocket to set the Black Cats on their way to a 2-0 victory against Preston North End and is a proven performer in the Championship.
He’s not played many minutes but has five assists in just seven starts which works out to 0.4 assists per 90 putting him up there as one of the top in the league.
These assists come from his ability to pick out progressive passes which adds a different element to Sunderland's mainly dribbling attacking threat and will pose a different kind of threat for Town to deal with.
I highlighted Hume in the first meeting of these sides and he had an absolute shocker, having been dominated by Davis and ending up having an early bath after two yellow cards. However, if Davis is still out injured for this one, he could end up having more joy.
He’s the top performer in the league for combined tackles and interceptions and these tackles are won 50/50 between the defensive third and the midfield third, which shows that Sunderland won’t just sit back and will be aggressive in trying to take the ball off Town down that side of the pitch.
He’s also made the tenth-highest number of blocks in the league. Where he falls down against other full-backs is then progressing the ball with low dribbling and passing metrics. However, as a defensive right-back, he’s up there as one of the best in the league.
A lot will depend on injury issues and new signings but I'm going to base this on the players that are through the door currently as we’re now one and a bit weeks into the window. It is possible that a late signing could come in and start straight away, especially if that signing is a striker coming through the door.
At the back, Hladky should be in goal despite a very solid performance from Christian Walton in the FA Cup. With Cameron Burgess away at the Asian Cup, Davis suffering from a calf injury and Harry Clarke still managing his achilles issue, Town’s hybrid 4-2-3-1 has switched to more of a back five in recent games with Axel Tuanzebe, Luke Woolfenden and George Edmundson forming the base.
That three is likely to start again against Sunderland. The question mark is over the left-back if Davis isn’t fit. Clarke provides more drive and physicality down that side but against Stoke lost momentum a lot cutting back onto his favoured right-foot.
Cameron Humphreys is still learning the role on the job and doesn’t quite have the running pace and penetration as Clarke, but has delivered some fine balls into the box in recent games. The youngster gets the nod for me for that reason and because Clarke is still an injury doubt.
In midfield, Sam Morsy starts his two-game ban. New signing Lewis Travis has come in and a big factor in his move was because he wanted to play more games in the role that Morsy plays, sitting and covering the defence.
He missed the last two Blackburn games but has played decent minutes over the Christmas period and with a week on the training pitch, you’d imagine he’d slot straight in for this one with Massimo Luongo alongside him.
The real question for this one is who starts up front. Freddie Ladapo looked leggy and off the pace against AFC Wimbledon and won’t have done his case any favours.
Nathan Broadhead shifted into that front role as second half substitutions were made but his impact and ability to get on the ball is very much limited in those situations, and with his finishing having been hit and miss recently, I personally think that’s a waste of his talent.
Kieran McKenna has also hinted that both Wes Burns and Chaplin can play centrally so he could potentially use the three rotating through the game.
I think that’s a bit of a red herring and I can see Kayden Jackson starting against Sunderland. Although he’s not prolific, his pace in behind causes teams problems.
When he starts, he does tend to drift let and leave Broadhead and Chaplin playing more central in what can end up a 4-2-4 and Town can create chances that way.
With Sunderland playing their full-backs high up the pitch, this is what I think McKenna will do for this particular tactical battle.
For Sunderland Patterson will start in goal with Hume at right-back and a centre-half pairing of Luke O’Nien and Daniel Ballard.
The other full-back position is a bit of a question mark at the moment with Dennis Cirkin injured but I expect AJ Alese to fill it, however, he has only just returned from an injury of his own so will have to be managed carefully.
The other options are Jensen Seelt who has played on the right with Hume shifting to the left or Pembele who came on there to replace Alese against Preston.
In midfield, Pierre Ekwah who impressed a lot in the game at the Stadium of Light and Neil, who was the man who scored the consolation goal on Wearside, have been Sunderland's main midfield pairing and there is no reason they won’t start this one.
Ahead of them, providing he’s not subject of a move away (West Ham have been showing a lot of interest) then Clarke should start on the left-hand side, Bellingham in the number ten and Pritchard on the right in the absence of the injured Patrick Roberts.
Rusy should continue leading the line as he looks to build upon scoring his first Championship goal for the club.
This game will likely split into two four-v-four battles in addition to the one in midfield.
Tuanzebe isn’t a natural in that right-back role and Burns will have to do a lot of tracking back to ensure that Clarke is kept nullified.
Woolfenden will also play a crucial role in that with some of his covering play and sniffing out of danger having been excellent in recent times.
Bellingham and Pritchard also can’t be ignored and given Town’s cover of Clarke might get more joy on the ball.
In the middle, both midfield pairings are made up of a sitter and a more advance player. Luongo is familiar with his role in there and has worked even harder to support Humphreys defensively down the left-hand side and Travis will be hoping to make an instant impact on his debut.
On Town’s attacking side, Burns is likely to be the main outlet, although if Jackson stretches the play on the left-hand side, then Broadhead could get some good chances on the ball in the left-hand ten role. He may have to do it himself when he gets in those positions but worked a couple of good chances against Wimbledon without putting the ball in the net.
Overall, I'm predicting this to be another tight game. It could come down to pieces of individual brilliance once again to unpick either sides defence.
Town are on a run of games without a win and are four points down on their head-to-head record compared to the first half of the season (QPR and Stoke providing two points compared to six in the first half of the season).
I predicted a draw at the start of the season and I'm going for the same again, 2-2, which would still be a very respectable result against a team pushing for the play-offs and would more importantly just about keep Southampton out of reach of second place.
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