Jack Ross on Josh Maja, Jerome Sinclair, and the battle for Sunderland's main striking role
Jack Ross has selection dilemmas all over the pitch but up front an interesting battle for places is developing.
Josh Maja has been one of the success stories of the season. Not just at Sunderland, or just in League One. No teenager in the top four tiers have scored more goals than his ten in all competitions.
Yet his place in the team is anything but certain.
Jerome Sinclair may not have shown the same goalscoring instincts as his 19-year-old team-mate but in recent weeks his all-round contribution has been excellent.
At Port Vale his tenacity was vital in both of Sunderland’s goals.
Both are so different that the prospect of playing them as a pair is tantalising. Indeed, before Sinclair picked up an injury, their partnership was vital to the Black Cats turning around what could have been a galling opening day of the season against Charlton Athletic.
Doing that, however, would mean dropping an attacking midfielder and disrupting a system that has delivered eight consecutive wins.
Ross admits that constant rotation would not be ideal, but it is something both players might have to get used to.
“There’s also an argument that you could play both of them - and we have done that on occasions,” Ross said.
“One of the challenges for me at the moment is that so many of the players are playing well.
“So if I play the two of them then I have to leave one the three in behind out, and all their contributions have been really good.
“It’s not easy at the moment.
“It’s a nice problem to have.
“They are very different and there have been times this season when I’ve based my selection, not just on who I think is the best player or who is in the best form, but according to what we’re facing,”Ross added.
“So Port Vale, the size of the pitch and how we felt they would play dictated that a bit.
“Jerome played an important role but there’s been other games that have suited Josh better.
“I don’t want to rotate them all the time but it’s nice to be able to have them, there’ll be times when certain games are suited to one, or both.
“I think they’ve understood in the games where they’ve not played and they’ve always been positive when they’ve come on and affected it.
Ross has been clear that he will avoid loan signings as much as possible but Sinclair is one who was made a big impression on and off the pitch.
Like Maja, Ross believes that Sinclair’s relative inexperience is easily forgotten.
“He’s looked really fit and strong,” Ross said.
“He’s trained well for a consistent period.
“The thing about Jerome is, he’s not played that much football.
“He’d not played many games before he came here. He’s still relatively inexperienced. You look at the clubs he’s been at, Liverpool, Watford, but the reality is he hasn’t played that much football.
“So every time he plays a game it is another step forward for him. “Not so long ago he played three games in a week, Shrewsbury, Doncaster, Southend.
“Southend he came off after an hour, he felt a wee bit leggy.
“I said, ‘I wondered how you’d deal with it because you’ve never done it before.’ But psychologically, it was another barrier for him broken down.
“It seems amazing that he’d never done that before,” Ross aded.
“So it has been about getting up to speed in terms of fitness but also just getting him used to playing. Already this season, I might be wrong, but he’s probably edging towards as many appearances this season as he had in his whole career previously.
“That in itself how much he is progressing.”
It says everything about Maja’s campaign so far that his goal at Morecambe ended his longest ‘drought’ of the campaign.
Ross marks Maja out as one of the best finishers he has worked with at Sunderland and that means the youngster will never be far off a place in the team.
“I read earlier in the week that he was younger than some of the others who played on Tuesday,” Ross said.
“It made me think as well because you can forget that.
“What he’s achieved this season has been great and he continues to do that. What he does well is arguably the hardest part of the game.
“Josh can be hard on himself, which I think is a good thing if you control it.
“He’s critical of himself and can be about what he’s doing in games.
“The thing for Josh is, I can’t remember him missing many opportunities,” Ross said.
“I think the one at Plymouth, when he was on the ground, strangely enough I thought he would score that one but just because he’s such a good finisher.
“it’s not like he’s missed any chances he would normally take.
“He’s not played as much obviously, but for him, double figures, he must be thinking, ‘in November, that’s not bad’.”