How Jack Ross came closer than ever to his strongest Sunderland XI and the few questions that still remain
It is not often this season that Sunderland have had such control of a game.
They may not have sparkled at Bristol Rovers but they comfortably had the better of the play and at the other end they did not concede a single shot on target.
Jack Ross was a very satisfied manager and post-match, spoke of the partnerships blossoming all over the pitch.
After a post-January period of transition, he has found a structure and personnel that looks fit for purpose.
He talked of the benefits that come with continuity in selection, while acknowledging that the schedule will demand some rotation.
We take a look at the key issues he has been able to resolve, and the ones that remain.....
The players in possession: McLaughlin; O’Nien, Flanagan, Dunne, James
A clean sheet against Bristol Rovers was a timely tonic for a defence that had come under scrutiny for shipping four goals in two home games.
It is arguably the area of the pitch where the biggest question marks remain.
Luke O’Nien is a starter for just about everyone, though the debate is whereabouts in the XI that should be.
Ross had admitted he is one of the best finishers at the club and his attacking instincts make him a candidate for attacking midfield. The way he won two penatlies against Gillingham, however, showed why Ross likes him at right back.
Those late runs and good finishes at the back post add another dimension to Sunderland’s attack from the wide areas, particularly in games at the Stadium of Light where the opposition sits deep.
Adam Matthews will apply pressure but for now O’Nien looks settled.
As does Reece James, even if some would prefer Bryan Oviedo’s attacking instincts.
Oviedo has not been in matchday squad since his deadline day move to West Brom collapsed and though Ross insists he is part of his plans, there have been injuries since and Denver Hume has been back on the grass longer.
It would take a big turnaround to change the pecking order.
The final question mark is whether Jack Baldwin can get back into the picture.
He has been rested for the last two games after indifferent spells, and few would quibble with the return of Tom Flanagan.
Jimmy Dunne delivered his best performance yet at the Memorial Stadium, dealing superbly with the direct style of the opposition.
It has been tougher at home where the emphasis on good distribution is greater.
On form that should be Baldwin’s strength and is one to watch over the coming weeks.
The players in possession: Honeyman, Cattermole, Leadbitter, McGeady
Grant Leadbitter and Lee Cattermole have quickly established an effective partnership in midfield, adding balance and composure to the Sunderland side.
Their experience is perfect for the pressures of a promotion chase and it would be no surprise to see them go on a long run of league starts.
Leadbitter’s arrival has been bad news for Dylan McGeouch but he is a ready-made replacement at the base of midfield.
Likewise with Cattermole and Max Power.
Aiden McGeady’s continiuing form makes his selection easy while in recent matches, George Honeyman has offered a good balance starting in the wide positions.
It will be interesting to see if Lewis Morgan can produce more sparkling cameos like the one at Bristol Rovers and force Ross to reflect on the shape of the side and how he can find a place for him.
The players in possession: Watmore, Grigg
One of the biggest challenges is to successfully replace Chris Maguire.
The forward’s return to the XI was brief but he showed how vital he can be in linking up the midfield and attack.
In a season where the debate has often been whether to play with one striker or two, Maguire was a perfect bridge.
Watmore stepped into that role against Bristol Rovers and while a very different player, his pressing helped keep Sunderland up the pitch.
His natural ability at stretching the game is something Ross rates highly and he will get plenty of gametime in Maguire’s absence.
His presence should ultimately mean that the main striker does not get isolated, as happened regularly in the troubled patch at the start fo the new year.
Of course, his long injury absence means playing two or three full games in a week will not be an option and so there will plenty of chances for Lynden Gooch and Morgan.
Ross remarked after the Blackpool game at how Watmore had thrived in the ‘half and half’ role which saw him drift infield from the right.
That is a definite option to reprise, with Gooch or Honeyman drifting into the gaps.
With all these players the benefit will be their ability to switch positions naturally.
Will Grigg has the starting berth sewn up, with the only question as to whether the lively Kazaiah Sterling can impress enough on the training pitch to edge ahead of Charlie Wyke.
They’re good decisions for Ross to have to make, starting from position of strength as his Sunderland side begins to take encouraging shape.