Eight key things to watch out for as Sunderland step up pre-season preparations in Portugal

Sunderland fly out to Portgual on Wednesday morning as their pre-season preparations reach a crucial moment.

By Phil Smith
Wednesday, 17 July, 2019, 06:51
Sunderland AFC new signing Jordan Willis.

They will face Benfica B on Thursday and Belenenses on Saturday, both games played at the Estadio Municipal de Albufeira and kicking off at 7.30pm.

Here, we run through eight key things for supporters to watch out for….

A debut for Jordan Willis

Sunderland have been relatively quiet in the transfer window so far but their additions have been carefully targeted and the addition of Jordan Willis is one that has been very much welcomed.

Sunderland’s centre-backs all showed form in patches last season but the regularity with which Ross felt forced to change his partnerships was in stark contrast to the sides who eventually won promotion.

Ross was clear in wanting more pace and strength right throughout the team and nowhere more so than at the heart of defence.

Willis brings that, as well as extensive Football League experience and plenty of toom and time to further improve.

Supporters will be looking forward to a first glimpse of his talents against Benfica B on Thursday night.

And who might partner him

Tom Flanagan looked in good form and shape against South Shields, while Jack Baldwin was also largely untroubled.

It would be a major surprise if Willis did not start the season as first choice but there is at least one place alongside him to play for.

It’s an open field at the moment, and the trip to Portugal should give Alim Ozturk a first chance to stake his claim.

Ozturk did not play against South Shields due to a stiff neck but has since been back in training.

His lack of fitness was obvious last pre-season and it took him a long time to find his feet. Once he did, he looked good and if he can maintain that form, he will give himself a decent chance of facing Oxford United.

Another look at three at the back?

Ross played with a back five in the first pre-season game and particularly in the second half, it looked a very good fit.

Luke O’Nien and Denver Hume enjoyed the lincence to get forward and Duncan Watmore caused all sorts of problems with the freedom to tuck inside and cause havoc around Will Grigg.

It’s a system that worked well towards the beginning of last season and it will be interesting to see if Ross continues to experiment with it in these next two games.

Ross likes his side to play with real width and switch the play into dangerous areas, something which this formation seems to encourage.

He has said he will continue tinkering before the League One campaign starts, and we should also see O’Nien get the chance to impress in midfield at some stage.

Midfield combinations

There is competition for places all over the park but nowhere more so than midfield.

Sign up to our Sunderland AFC newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Dylan McGeouch looks increasingly likely to stay at Sunderland after Aberdeen strengthened their ranks elsewhere, while Ethan Robson and Elliot Embleton both impressed last week.

Embleton’s ability to pass with both feet is a real asset while Robson believes he has added much-needed physicality to his game while on loan in Scotland.

With Grant Leadbitter arguably the most impressive of all in the second half of that 2-0 win, it will be fascinating to see Ross’ options in this part of the field continue to develop.

How is Aiden McGeady progressing?

McGeady has been recovering from the broken bone in his foot picked up at the end of last season and Ross said there was a slim chance he could feature in Portgual.

Either way, there should be an update on his fitness during the week.

Last season will offer much hope, when he quickly found form despite having no pre-season at all to speak of.

And what’s happening with Bryan Oviedo?

Oviedo was given extra time off after his participation in the Gold Cup with Costa Rica.

It’s no secret that all parties would be keen to him moving on this summer, with Sunderland keen to further bring their wage bill into line with their league status.

It would be an important deal for the club, potentially freeing up room for more business and leaving Ross in need of finding a replacement.

Denver Hume will be first choice but back-up and competition will clearly be needed.

Will any youngsters be involved?

Sunderland are in a far stronger position last year, when Ross’ options were supplemented significantly by young players.

This time he has a large senior squad but it will be interesting to see which, if any, youngsters are involved.

Jack Bainbridge and Jordan Hunter both played against South Shields and did themselves no harm.

Bali Mumba is unlikely to be involved, with Ross believing his development is for the time being best served in the U23s.

Can Grigg and Wyke get off the mark?

Both came close against South Shields, with Grigg in particular looking fit and sharp.

His connection with Watmore looked good and is something for the Black Cats to build on.

Both are going to be absolutely crucial for Sunderland this season and it would be a boost for them to get off the mark.