An attacking shape, Chris Maguire and new roles: The SEVEN changes Sunderland must consider for their play-off semi-final second leg

Sunderland have 90 minutes left to salvage their season.

Thursday, 20th May 2021, 10:08 am

Promotion has been the ambition from the get-go on Wearside and nothing but a convincing win will be enough when Lincoln City come to the Stadium of Light on Saturday.

And after a lacklustre display at Sincil Bank in the first leg, head coach Lee Johnson will undoubtedly be considering a number of changes to his side ahead of the return clash.

So what changes should the Black Cats be considering and who could come in and out of the side?

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Chris Maguire
Chris Maguire

We examine SEVEN potential changes that Johnson could make, with tactics and personnel all under the microscope:

TIME FOR THREE AT THE BACK?

Grant Leadbitter alluded to it in his post-match interview with safc.com, but Sunderland cannot go 'gung ho' in the second leg.

A third goal for Lincoln could be fatal, so a balance will need to be struck.

An attacking shape, Chris Maguire and new roles: The SEVEN changes Sunderland must consider for their play-off semi-final second leg

But there is no hiding from the fact that the Wearsiders have to play on the front foot from the off on Saturday afternoon if they are to force their way back into the tie.

So could a change in shape allow them to play with a bit more attacking intent?

At Lincoln, particularly in the early stages of the game, Charlie Wyke was often isolated and Sunderland didn't get enough bodies into the final third.

So could a move to a 3-4-3 - with attack-minded wing-backs - benefit the Black Cats in that regard?

With Denver Hume a major doubt after suffering a hamstring injury and Luke O'Nien's services potentially required in the centre of the backline, there is an opportunity for Sunderland to get a plethora of their attacking talent on the field from early on.

The likes of Lynden Gooch and Jack Diamond could feasibly play as the wing-backs, with Aiden McGeady, Jordan Jones and perhaps even Chris Maguire (we'll come onto him...) then in contention to play behind Wyke in the front three.

It would risk leaving Sunderland vulnerable at the back, but they desperately need goals.

WILL TOM FLANAGAN START AGAIN?

If Sunderland do indeed switch to a back three, then it's likely that Flanagan will have to start given the lack of defensive options currently at Johnson's disposal.

But if they stick with a back four then there will surely be a question mark over his involvement following the first leg.

Flanagan looked sharp early on but struggled in the second half, and two lapses in concentration from the central defender cost Sunderland dearly.

The Northern Irish international was unaware that Tom Hopper had ghosted in behind him for the first goal, before his back pass then saw Lee Burge's kick ricochet back off Brennan Johnson for the second.

His experience could see him get the nod once again, but some defensive changes may well be considered.

ANOTHER NEW ROLE FOR LUKE O’NIEN

Having spent much of the second half of the season playing as a central defender, O’Nien returned to right-back for the trip to Lincoln.

But could he make an impact higher up the field in the second leg?

Sunderland need goals and O’Nien’s energy in the centre of midfield could help drive the side forward – and could also help thwart Michael Appleton’s side when they look to break at speed.

It would be something of a gamble given the Black Cats’ limited options at the back, and would mean a reshuffle in the central areas, but this could be a calculated roll of the dice that pays off.

GRANT LEADBITTER COULD PLAY A PART

While the introduction of Leadbitter at Sincil Bank raised some eyebrows given the fact the change came when Sunderland were chasing the game, the experienced midfielder did have a noticeable effect on the midfield.

The Black Cats were calmer in possession after the 35-year-old entered the fray and while they still weren’t particularly incisive, they were at least retaining possession for longer spells and limiting Lincoln’s opportunities on the break.

That element of control in the middle will be crucial if Sunderland are to turn the screw on the Imps on Saturday.

CHRIS MAGUIRE NEEDS TO BE INVOLVED

10,000 fans back in the stadium for the first time in over a year.

Sunderland facing an uphill battle, and in dire need of an attacking spark.

Has a game ever been more made for Chris Maguire?

It was something of a surprise that the Scot was not introduced from the bench at Sincil Bank as Sunderland sought a goal that would have afforded them a real route back into the tie.

It would perhaps be an even bigger surprise were Maguire to start on Saturday given his limited game time since Johnson's arrival, but this is the kind of stage he was made for.

TWO UP TOP?

If Sunderland are to change shape as previously discussed, then it could open the door for Ross Stewart to start.

The winter signing was impressive at Plymouth only for a hamstring injury to rule him out of the final game of the season – and he at least showed some endeavour in the defeat at Sincil Bank after being introduced in the second half.

Johnson needs to name a team that can score goals, and so it would be little surprise if Stewart was handed an opportunity from the start.

JACK DIAMOND’S CRUCIAL ROLE

Diamond had little time to make an impression as he was introduced in injury time in the first leg, but could prove vital in the return fixture.

His pace, willingness to run at his man and direct nature is a different option for Sunderland – and one which caused Lincoln problems earlier in the season.

He will undoubtedly have a crucial part to play as the Black Cats seek goals, but whether that is from the start or as a substitute remains to be seen.

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