The key beneficiaries of Sunderland's win at MK Dons as trio send a clear message to Lee Johnson
As has often been the case, the Papa John’s Trophy presented an opportunity to impress.
Lee Johnson has vowed to take the controversial competition seriously but made four changes to his Sunderland side at MK Dons.
For those introduced it was a chance to stake a claim, to try and seal their place in the Sunderland side for the return visit to stadium:mk on Saturday.
During his short time on Wearside, the head coach has already shown that impressive performances in the cup can lead to a run in the side – Aiden O’Brien perhaps being the perfect example.
So who took their chance at MK Dons, and who didn’t? We take a look:
A good night for…
There were a trio of players for whom this was an exceptionally positive evening.
Remi Matthews is the first. The stopper has been understudy to Lee Burge for the vast majority of the season and that shows no signs of changing in the short-term, with Burge now well-established at the number one under Johnson.
But with close to half the season left to play - and at least one more cup tie now guaranteed – rotation could well come into play at some point.
And at MK Dons, Matthews showed he is more than capable of doing a job if required.
It was arguably the stopper’s best display since moving to the Stadium of Light and while spectacular saves weren’t required on this occasion, there were some solid stops to keep out Joe Mason and Scott Fraser in the second half.
In front of him, Luke O’Nien was the pick of the bunch in what was a fine display – particularly considering his mid-match positional change.
Johnson handed the club’s go-to utility man a chance to impress in the centre of the park, until an early injury to Callum McFadzean meant a switch to left-back.
O’Nien had started brightly in midfield, helping Sunderland press high while driving forward and breaking up play well. But he was equally as effective in the backline, and made one superb interception in the first half to keep the Black Cats ahead.
A return to the back four looks unlikely for now, as even in the 25 minutes he spent there O’Nien showed plenty to suggest that his future may lie back in the midfield.
And it was in the midfield where the final of the trio took his chance.
Dan Neil was the man brought on to replace McFadzean in what was the youngster’s first appearance since the last round of the competition – where he picked up an injury.
There was considerable loan interest in Neil this month but Johnson opted to keep him on Wearside, and based on his performance in Milton Keynes the academy graduate will have a part to play as the season wears on.
He has a maturity that defies his age and was tidy and effective in possession, while also posing a threat in the box.
With Elliot Embleton now having left on loan, Neil could be a useful asset in the coming weeks and months.
It must also be noted that this was a good night for Johnson himself, too.
In the early stages of the first half his tactics made life extremely difficult for MK Dons, with the high press thwarting their attempts to play out from the back on several occasions.
Things dropped off as the game wore on, so the head coach freshened things up.
A quadruple substitution coupled with a change in shape to a 3-4-3 led to a strong finish – and the two goals that sealed victory.
What could have become a nervy finale became a comfortable one, and Johnson should take some credit for that.
A promising night for…
There was much promise to take from Lynden Gooch's performance, as the American completed a valuable ninety minutes.
He impressed in the first-half and played a key role in the goal, while his pressing of the MK Dons backline was both relentless and effective.
His impact waned after the break, but there were encouraging signs.
So too were there in Jordan Jones’ debut outing for the Black Cats. The Rangers loanee completed close to an hour in his first showing for Sunderland and showed a glimmer of what fans can come to expect from him – namely pace, directness and an unpredictability which can liven up a sometimes static frontline.
A concerning night for…
You have to wonder what the future holds for Chris Maguire.
Johnson was notably coy when quizzed about the wingers future after the draw with Gillingham on Saturday, in a game where the Scot failed to make the bench.
Maguire was back in the squad at Milton Keynes but failed to enter the field as one of only two unused substitutes – the other being goalkeeper Anthony Patterson.
He hasn’t started a league game since the turn of the year and that shows little sign of changing in the near future.
Another player who may also see opportunities limited is McFadzean.
This was perhaps the left-back’s final chance to stake a claim given Jake Vokins is available for selection for Saturday’s league fixture.
While McFadzean’s injury is not a serious one, Vokins is perhaps still likely to be given the nod at the weekend – meaning the onus is now on the former Plymouth man to retain his place in the starting line-up.
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