Who gets the nod to start for Sunderland against Charlton? Our writers pick their starting XI
After one of the busiest ever summers on Wearside, the new League One campaign is finally upon us.
New-look Sunderland – under the guidance of Jack Ross – kick off the 2018-19 campaign at home to Charlton Athletic at the Stadium of Light on Saturday lunchtime (KO 12.30pm).
A bumper crowd is expected for the opening game of the Ross and Stewart Donald era, with the Black Cats making 10 new signings – so far – this summer.
Injuries will already force Ross’ hand on the selection front though.
Versatile Tom Flanagan, who can play across the defence and in central midfield, looks set to miss the game while there are significant doubts over Dylan McGeouch, who was suffering from a tight calf during the abandoned friendly at Middlesbrough.
Reece James, Duncan Watmore and Aiden McGeady will also miss out the season opener through injury.
Our team of Sunderland writers assess the options available to Ross and pick their team to face Charlton as the action gets underway for real.
Phil Smith’s team:
(4-3-3) McLaughlin; Love, Baldwin, Loovens, Matthews; McGeouch/Robson; O’Nien, Honeyman; Maguire, Maja, Gooch.
Jack Ross has been contemplating whether to throw his new arrivals into the side straight away and his mind might well be made up for him by the latest developments on the injury front.
His biggest issue is at the base of midfield, with the influential and unique Dylan McGeouch a doubt.
Tom Flanagan would ordinarily deputise there but is also missing. So Ross likely has to choose between Ethan Robson and Lee Cattermole, with Bali Mumba a player who you would ideally want in a more advanced position.
From what we have seen in pre-season, Robson looks better suited to the playmaking role Ross demands from the position.
Mumba would be unlucky to miss out, but while Luke O’Nien has no League One experience, he has significant seniority and looks raring to go.
Jack Baldwin gets the nod ahead of Alim Ozturk, who has looked like a player needing a little more time to get back in the swing of things when it comes to British football.
Up front, Chris Maguire deserves the nod after a superb pre-season campaign and while Jerome Sinclair is going to be a big player this season, his lack of pre-season action should see Josh Maja get the nod.
Richard Mennear’s team:
(4-3-3) McLaughlin, Love, Baldwin, Loovens, Matthews, Mumba, O’Nien, Honeyman, Gooch, Maguire, Sinclair.
He has gone under the radar for much of pre-season but Sunderland look to have secured themselves a very dependable new goalkeeper in Jon McLaughlin.
The Scotland international commands his area well, is good in the air and looks confident coming for crosses. He has showcased he can pull off his fair share of reaction saves too.
He will start in goal. Ahead of him, the defence probably picks itself given Flanagan is set to miss the game.
Donald Love and Adam Matthews have done well in the full-back positions and with James currently out injured, they will be Ross’ selections at right and left-back respectively.
The big question mark will be whether to throw Jack Baldwin and Glenn Loovens in together from the start for the first time or pair one of them with Alim Ozturk, who looked much more solid against Middlesbrough after a shaky pre-season to that point.
Dylan McGeouch would start but he looks set to miss out through injury, in central midfield in his place, 16-year-old Bali Mumba could be the surprise selection.
He has been a regular feature of pre-season and hasn’t looked out of place despite his tender years. It would be a gamble and his game is perhaps better suited further forward.
Clearly it would be a lot to ask a teenager to play week in, week out at League One level but Ross may consider it a gamble worth taking on the opening day.
Alongside him expect to see new signing O’Nien make his first start, Sunderland fans excited by his signing given the outpouring of sadness at former club Wycombe at his departure.
George Honeyman will start, while Lynden Gooch has been one of the star performers this pre-season and Chris Maguire has been a surprise package, his work rate and creativity catching the eye.
Ross then must decide whether to start with Josh Maja or throw Jerome Sinclair in from the off.
The Watford loanee showed enough in the 45 minutes against Boro, including almost scoring, that could persuade Ross to go with him from the start.
An intriguing afternoon is in store as Sunderland kick-off their League One campaign.