The major Sunderland selection dilemmas now facing Phil Parkinson after concerning Harrogate performance
A lot can change in 90 minutes – particularly one as concerning as Sunderland’s clash with Harrogate Town.
Phil Parkinson’s team selection for the friendly yielded little in the way of surprises, with his selection consistent with the team that had served him well in the Black Cats’ purple patch just after the turn of the year.
To all intents and purposes it looked to be a dress rehearsal for next weekend’s Carabao Cup tie with Hull City, a final chance for the squad likely to start that cup clash to play together.
But after a display in which the Black Cats looked lethargic and devoid of any real creativity – until their goal in the 85th minute – Parkinson has been handed plenty of food for thought.
Indeed, he even admitted after the game that his starting line-up for the cup game was far from a foregone conclusion.
And there are now some major selection dilemmas facing the Sunderland boss ahead of next weekend’s return to competitive action. Here, we examine the key battles to watch with interest ahead of the teamsheet landing next weekend:
While there are some areas which remain up for debate, there are also a number of positions where it seems unlikely Parkinson will make any major changes.
Lee Burge will likely get the nod between the sticks, while it would be a major surprise if the back three of Tom Flanagan, Bailey Wright and Jordan Willis was to change. Even the mooted arrival of Arbenit Xhemajli is unlikely to have an impact, given he has been called-up to the Kosovan national side for the upcoming international window.
Similarly in the wing-back positions, Denver Hume and Luke O’Nien are all-but-guaranteed to start against Hull. This is no small part due to the lack of competition in those departments, with Conor McLaughlin also away on international duty.
In midfield, Max Power and Josh Scowen are the likeliest pair to start, although much will depend on the severity of the injury picked up by Scowen in the second half of the win against Harrogate – which Parkinson suggested wasn’t anything too serious during his post-match press conference.
Should the former QPR man be passed fit, he will be set for a start given his impressive performances in pre-season thus far.
But while these positions look to be locked in, others look far less certain...
THE NUMBER TENS
Lynden Gooch and Chris Maguire look to be the two men in possession of these shirts – but neither were particularly influential against Harrogate.
Maguire impressed off the bench against Carlisle and has scored twice in his three appearances so far, and could well be guaranteed a start on that basis.
Gooch, on the other hand, has struggled to make a real impact thus far. He made a few good runs against the North Yorkshire side but his final ball let him down, as it did against Carlisle where set-pieces failed to clear the first man on numerous occasions.
Therefore, a decision has to be made – with some alternative options perhaps appealing to Parkinson.
We haven’t seen a great deal of Aiden O’Brien in pre-season but he looked likely over the bench against Harrogate, striking the post with one of his first touches.
He could therefore come into contention, while there is also a case to be made for Dan Neil to be handed a start.
While still undoubtedly raw, the academy graduate has been one of the shining lights of Sunderland’s pre-season campaign. His energy saw him find his way into some fine positions against Carlisle and he was unlucky not to score.
Against Harrogate, the teenager played a fine ball into Will Grigg to score and once again impressed as he buzzed around the opposition area, creating space for others and proving difficult to track.
There is, of course, a vast difference between making an impact off the bench for a brief period and having a tangible impact on the majority of a game against a side tipped for League One promotion.
But if Parkinson needs a barometer of where Neil is at – and whether he is ready for the rough and tumble of League One football on a week-in, week-out basis – the Hull game could prove an ideal opportunity to test the waters, given cup progression is not top of the club’s priorities this season.
THE LONE STRIKER
And here we come to the biggest area of debate – who should lead the line?
Charlie Wyke has been Parkinson’s preferred option for most of his tenure, with the Sunderland manager praising his work rate off the ball last season.
He scored twice against Carlisle in the week and looked to be clutching tightly onto the number nine shirt after a promising display off the bench.
But Parkinson held a discussion with the striker after a ‘static’ display against Gateshead, and he didn’t press with the purpose or intensity required against Harrogate.
Grigg, meanwhile, failed to make a major impact in his start against Carlisle – but has now netted crucial goals off the bench against Gateshead and Harrogate. Importanty, he looks fitter and is now able to press in the manner Parkinson demands of his lone striker.
His sharp finish on Saturday was a reminder of what the striker is capable of – and the calls for him to start are growing louder by the week.
Could we finally see Grigg hit the heights many expected when he joined? Only time will tell, but one thing is for certain – he’s done his chances of a start against Hull no harm with his recent performances.