Sunderland (A) Match Preview

The relentless nature of the Championship is really showing now as Latics prepare for their 4th game in 10 days as we make the mammoth journey up to the north east to take on Sunderland. A fellow League 1 side last season, Sunderland have started the season well just like we have and tomorrow looks set to be another hard fought game between the pair of us.

Latics were one of four teams to play in midweek and will be glad they did so after securing a 1-0 win against Blackburn Rovers. It was our first home win of the season and that weight being lifted off our shoulders will do us the world of good, not least because it takes away the pressure of having to win our away games as our only source of points!

Opponents Sunderland started the season really well but have hit a bit of a rough patch recently which they’re obviously desperate to get out of. After 3 wins from 3 against us last season I’m sure the Black Cats will fancy their chances at the Stadium of Light on Saturday afternoon, but I’m also sure it’ll be a much tighter game than the ones last year were.

Latics Team News

Tuesday night’s game saw Leam Richardson make some personnel and tactical changes that many people had been clamouring for for a while now. It still wasn’t perfect but it was a huge stride forward in performance and entertainment factor, and whilst entertainment isn’t a priority it definitely helped get our fans on board during the game.

Its a bonus that a positive result came from it too and it shows that we can play that way regularly. With that in mind this team news section is pretty easy to write for me, more of the same please Mr Richardson!

Ben Amos didn’t face a shot on target on Tuesday night in what will probably be the easiest clean sheet of his career. After a poor couple of games getting a clean sheet under his belt, even though he didn’t have to contribute as much as usual, will be great for him. He commanded his area well and claimed a couple of decent crosses so all in all its good to see him back on track.

The back 3 that closed out the League 1 season last term was back in full flow on Tuesday night and looked as good as they have done as a trio. Jack Whatmough was the pick of the bunch but all 3 were impressive defensively and will probably retain their places in the side. I will add that Curtis Tilt scares the living daylights out of me whenever the ball is at his feet but hey, at least he keeps it interesting!

Wing backs Darikwa and McClean were both really solid and are probably nailed on to start in those positions when we play a 5 at the back. Their tasks will be tricky this weekend against a Sunderland side with a lot of talent out wide but if they put in a similar performance to Tuesday night we’ll be just fine.

Max Power put in his best performance of the season in midweek but still really needs to improve his set piece delivery, I can’t believe how different they are to last season’s! His partner Tom Naylor was less impressive, particularly on the ball, but off the ball still looked really impressive. I’d still choose Shinnie over him every day but he’s doing fine for now. Jordan Cousins made the bench on Tuesday which is really positive, maybe we’ll see a few minutes from him tomorrow.

The front 3 is the main talking point from the Blackburn game though. Keane, Broadhead and Wyke worked really well in tandem with each other and considering the latter of the 2 are ex Sunderland I’m sure they’re licking their lips at the prospect of netting at the Stadium of Light again. I touched on how well they played together in my Blackburn review so check that out too!

The subs bench looked pretty strong on Tuesday too which is positive. Antony Scully was a notable absentee as has often been the case this season but thankfully we didn’t need him in the end. I’d have him on the bench instead of one of Fletcher or Magennis but I think that’s pretty unlikely given Leam’s tendency to use the pair of them as ‘lead preservers’ or ‘plan Bs’.

An Opposition View

To give an insight into where our opponents are at leading into tonight’s fixture I’ve called in the help of a few people far more knowledgeable on Sunderland than myself!

1) Sunderland have settled back into Championship life pretty well this season but it’s looked a bit up and down from the outside. What’ve you made of your sides start?

“Prior to the striker crisis, I don’t think many could have asked for a better start. Away from home certainly. Even in the games we lost, we more than showed our worth back at this level and we’re unlucky not to pick up a few extra points. Without both strikers we’ve had ups and downs but ultimately not picked up as many points as we may have had we had them available. But overall, more than good enough.” [@SpeakSAFC]

“We’ve made a good start to be fair considering we’re a side that have just come up from the same division as you guys. We’ve got a lot of talent in this squad that has sadly been hit with injuries to key areas recently. Once our new signings start gelling progression and results will be more consistent.” [@JacobKirkbride]

2) Alex Neil guided you to promotion but left in strange circumstances earlier on in the season. Tony Mowbray replaced him, how do you think he’s settled in to life at the SOL?

“Very well so far and he’s bought into the strategy the club is looking to work with. He has a proven track record of working with young players and helping them develop which is the main core of our squad. Again, the striker situation isn’t one that has helped him but overall he’s faired well so far.” [@SpeakSAFC]

“I think Tony has settled in pretty well. Him being from the north east is a big factor for us especially understanding the passion of the fanbase. He’s managed to carry on the good elements we had when Neil was here which is a good sign. Considering he had a track record of developing young players at Blackburn we have every faith he can do the same with this young squad. Results have been mixed due to injuries but overall performances have been good so far and fans are satisfied.” [@JacobKirkbride]

3) You’re in a bit of a tricky run of form at the moment with no wins in the last 4. Why do you think you’ve struggled in recent weeks and what would you like to see change?

“No strikers, simple. We haven’t had a vocal point to turn to if plan a doesn’t work. Not having that body in the box at all times has proven to be frustrating and really that is all we’ve been lacking. That said, to come away with a few points in that situation is still a relatively good outcome.” [@SpeakSAFC]

“Losing two of our main strikers Ross Stewart and Ellis Simms has been a big blow to us. However we’ve found a style that suits the players we have available and it has been good to watch but its all about results and in recent games we’ve just fallen short of getting over that line with 3 points. Saturday we may go back to basics considering we got tactically out thought at Swansea last week. A lack of physicality and cutting edge has been our negatives but tactical changes could be on the way very soon.” [@JacobKirkbride]

4) Latics lost all 3 of our games against you last season and you felt like a real bogey side for us. Who from your squad are you hoping will lead you to another victory against us?

“Jack Clarke especially stands out as our main threat going forward and will likely play in that central role on Saturday. But with creators like Amad, Pritchard and Roberts all likely to be involved at some point, I’d like to think we will create chances as we have done in the past few games. Add Jewison Bennette to that list as well who hopefully features from the bench.” [@SpeakSAFC]

“Jewison Bennete has potential to be the saving grace in the final third right now if he’s played through the middle. He has electrifying pace and can finish off chances if they’re created for him so hopefully he makes a big contribution Saturday.” [@JacobKirkbride]

Tactical Talk

Latics’ performance on Tuesday night was so much better than what we showed in previous weeks and I think its completely down to the style of play. More shots on goal (11/4), fewer shots against (3/0), fewer hit and hope crosses and long balls and a much more balanced method of attack. It made us far better to watch and in my opinion it was all down to a slight mentality change and a more fluid front three.

They all compliment each other well and looked really dangerous throughout the game. The introduction of Nathan Broadhead was key as it injected a bit of pace that we’d been desperately lacking previously and gave us a whole new dynamic going forward. He could run in behind, Keane could drop into space and Wyke could be used as the target man to link it all together.

Broadhead also dropped into space a fair amount too before turning and running with the ball himself. Its remarkable how much more exciting and dangerous we look with someone quick in our forward line and on Saturday I think that could cause some real problems for the Sunderland back line. Here’s a couple of images highlighting the difference between our 3 target man attack vs Cardiff and our more balanced front 3 against Blackburn.

Broadhead and Keane running off Charlie Wyke with our midfield in place to pick up second balls.
Wyke massively isolated with nobody running off him. A huge lack of pace against Cardiff and it cost us dear.

Having players running in behind, dropping into space to carry the ball and linking play together is the way to go forward if we’re persisting with a 5 at the back. Against this Sunderland team that’s lacking any out and out strikers it might seem strange to play with 3 CBs but the way in which they play makes me think its worth keeping a similar defensive structure to Tuesday.

The injuries to Ellis Simms and top scorer Ross Stewart have left Tony Mowbray extremely short up top. Its meant he’s had to be creative with what he’s got left and its resulted in the creation of a really interesting strikerless system full of attacking midfielders! They play a lot of quick intricate passes and look to get the ball out wide to wingers that can cut inside and shoot or drill low crosses into the area for onrushing midfielders.

The roles of Jack Clarker and Patrick Roberts are key for the Black Cats and they’re the two I’m most worried about. Clarke on the left and Roberts on the right, both like to cut inside on their strong feet and shoot which is exactly how the former grabbed a goal at the weekend. They’ll look to stay high up the pitch and pin our Wing Backs back whilst also doing their fair share of defensive work too.

Its hard to know who will play up top for them as in theory there isn’t a natural option. Alex Pritchard and Eliot Embleton both played as ‘false 9s’ against Swansea and could do the same again tomorrow, but it didn’t really work as they might’ve hoped. Pritchard is a much better player when creating from deep so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him drop further back into a position he caused Latics huge problems from last season.

Defensively they’re a bit shaky at the moment and one thing I’ve noticed is a real lack of height in their team. Dan Ballard was a big money signing in the summer but he’s broken his foot and won’t feature so Luke O’Nien has taken his spot at CB. He’s aggressive and really quite annoying to play against but equally is someone Charlie Wyke will fancy his chances against in the air.

Set pieces could be massive for us against a team likely to have no more than 4 players above 6 foot tall. If the delivery is on point we’ll stand a great chance but that hasn’t always been the case with Power and McClean this season. I’m expecting Sunderland to come out and try to put on a show for their supporters which could play into our hands away from home.

Final Thoughts

Away games no longer fill me with as much confidence as they did pre Hull but I’m still not feeling too bad about this one. The fact the weight of our home form has been lifted should be huge for us and against a weakened Sunderland team its as good a chance as any to deliver some payback for last seasons drubbing’s at their hands.

We also have plenty of players returning to the Stadium of Light who will be keen to get one over their former employers. McClean, Power, Broadhead, Wyke and Fletcher had spells at Sunderland and I can’t imagine many of them will be welcomed back with too many open arms. You’d like to think Charlie Wyke especially would get a nice reception but based on some recent posts on social media I’m not too sure it’ll be unanimous…

The Championship is so cramped at the moment that I don’t even feel like league position is that important at the moment. We just need to keep accumulating points quietly and we’ll be fine, hopefully in tomorrow’s game we do just that!

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