Phil Smith's verdict: Lee Johnson sees his Sunderland squad options grow on encouraging night

This game had presented something of a headache for Lee Johnson.

Thursday, 14th October 2021, 12:00 pm

In the wider context of the game, that Manchester United had been able to successfully push for this tie to be played on a date not of Sunderland' s choosing represented the power dynamics that have forced supporters of many lower-league clubs to turn away from this competition.

And, as Johnson had pointed out, that it would turn into essentially an U23s game would not be of major benefit to the young players of either club.

More pressing in the short term was that with a crucial league game in such close proximity and with a number of players on international duty, it left him with no choice but to field a side with no senior players (Denver Hume's continued return from injury aside).

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Stephen Wearne celebrates his winning goal at the Stadium of Light

The end result, then, was mightily impressive.

Another confident and assured performance booked progression with a game to spare, leaving Johnson the opportunity to give his senior players another midweek rest when Bradford City visit next month, and to give this group another well-earned chance to impress.

In the longer term this encouraging week or so suggests that Johnson's potential options for the season at large have grown.

That this was essentially an U23s game is of course a necessary caveat when assessing the performance, but many of those who had impressed against an experienced Lincoln City side a week earlier did so again here.

Not that Sunderland were dominant, by any stretch.

Joe Hugill caused problems regularly on his Wearside return, sharp in his running off the shoulder and on another night, he would have registered a brace.

On the other flank Dillon Hoogewerf was a regular threat, delivering the kind of eye-catching performance that leaves you taking a note of the name, fairly confident you will see it on a major stage in future.

That was a good test for Hume on the left flank, who was able to get 70 minutes under his belt.

Sunderland, though, deserved their win.

After one fortunate escape when Hugill struck the post early on, they controlled much of the first half and were dominant at the start of the second.

It was these passages that were most significant for Johnson.

It was here, he said, that his side were recognisably 'Sunderland'. The pressing was targeted and of impressive intensity, regularly forcing errors from the Manchester United backline and leading directly to the opening goal.

Sunderland's U23 results have been mixed this season but they have played some good football, noticeably shifting in style to mirror that of the first team.

The result has been that when asked to step into Johnson's side, they have looked comfortable doing so.

It's all the more encouraging when you consider the current injury issues the head coach faces (though only Niall Huggins will be out for a significant period), and will continue to face during a demanding schedule.

Players such as Ollie Younger, Harrison Sohna and Stephen Wearne (you could go through most of the side on this front) have joined Ellis Taylor in showing they are capable of slotting into Johnson's squad, whether it be in cup competitions or league games.

It was another night that showed, as Johnson himself said, that Sunderland are developing a real playing identity now.

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