Maintaining Ross Stewart's form and getting the best out of Alex Pritchard: The dilemmas facing Lee Johnson when Sunderland return to action
After a weekend without a game, Sunderland boss Lee Johnson will have plenty to ponder when his side return to action following the latest international break.
The Black Cats are set to face Mancheter United Under-21s in the Papa John’s Trophy this week, yet their league form is clearly the priority this season.
Wednesday’s game against United’s youngsters will start a run of ten games in 32 days for Sunderland, including trophy and cup fixtures.
With two games a week for five consecutive weeks, it will therefore be crucial for Johnson to utilise his squad and navigate a busy schedule as conditions become trickier and the winter months draw closer.
Sunderland weren’t able to adapt to the challenging circumstances at Portsmouth just over a week ago, and the Black Cats will be hoping to return to winning ways when they travel to Gillingham next weekend.
Ahead of the side’s return to league action, we’ve taken a closer look at some of the dilemmas Johnson will face.
Finding the right balance in midfield
As previously mentioned, Sunderland’s relentless schedule will result in rotation, yet the side’s midfield conundrum is an interesting one.
Corry Evans is the team captain, yet his injury at the start of the campaign has allowed Luke O’Nien and Dan Neil to flourish in the engine room.
The aforementioned pair complemented each other well, with Neil allowed to receive the ball and look to create chances while O’Nien sought out danger and helped win the ball back.
It could be the case that Johnson’s decision is made for him, after O’Nien went off with a rib injury against Lincoln last time out, while Evans had to withdraw from the Northern Ireland squad.
The extent of both setbacks are unclear at this stage but are slightly concerning given Sunderland’s upcoming games.
If both are unavailable, Elliot Embleton could drop back into midfield alongside Neil, allowing Alex Pritchard to come into the team.
Should that happen, there would be some concerns about the lack of a natural enforcer, with Embleton and Neil both more suited to advanced roles where they can make an impact in the final third.
It should also be noted that 19-year-old Harrison Sonha enjoyed a fine game alongside Neil against Lincoln last week.
Whether his options are limited or he has a full squad to choose from, Johnson will need to find the right balance in the heart of his team.
Getting the best out of Alex Pritchard – and other summer signings
After he missed most of pre-season when he tested positive for Covid-19, Pritchard’s slow-burning start has been understandable.
There have been flashes of the playmaker’s ability and his performance in the Carabao Cup win at Wigan was commendable.
Yet clearly there is a lot more to come from the 28-year-old, who came through the ranks at Tottenham and has impressed at Championship level.
Following Pritchard’s arrival at the Stadium of Light, Johnson said: “It’s not often that you get the opportunity to sign a player of this quality in League One.”
One of the problems for Pritchard was that Embleton started the season so well in the No 10 role, making it challenging for the former to break into Johnson’s preferred 4-2-3-1 system.
The Black Cats boss has said there are scenarios when the pair could play in the same side, which would incorporate two No 10s. Yet in the two league games they have started alongside each other, Embleton has been moved out of position and his impact has decreased as a result.
Pritchard isn’t the only summer signing who we are yet to see the best of.
Leon Dajaku scored his first Sunderland goal in the 5-0 win over Cheltenham but is still getting up to speed after a lack of competitive football in recent months.
At the back, Frederik Alves and Niall Huggins have had to be patient for their opportunities but have shown they are reliable options when called upon.
Their importance could increase in the weeks to come as games come thick and fast for the Black Cats.
Keep the supply for Ross Stewart
When the chances have come, the Scottish frontman has usually taken them this season.
Stewart’s expected goals total in League One this term is 5.51 (an average of 0.52 per game), a figure the striker has exceeded by scoring seven times in ten league appearances.
Sunderland may have threats from other areas – Carl Winchester has scored three times from right-back, while Aiden McGeady, Embleton, and Dan Neil have been on target this season – yet Stewart is by far the biggest source of goals.
While the Scot has been praised for his all-round game, he was left isolated up front at Portsmouth.
Of course there were several factors behind that, yet Pompey’s high press left the Black Cats pinned back and unable to get Stewart into the game. The striker registered just one touch in the opposition’s penalty area at Fratton Park.
With McGeady, Lynden Gooch, Dajaku, Embleton, Neil and Pritchard, Sunderland’s squad has a wealth of creativity. Stewart also benefitted when he was deployed as part of a front two alongside Nathan Broadhead against Cheltenham.
Broadhead’s hamstring injury means there is even less cover for Stewart and the Scot’s importance has become even more prominent.
The stats suggest that when the chances come, Stewart is a reliable goal scorer. Sunderland and Johnson need to find the best way to keep utilising him.