Sunderland's Corry Evans dilemma, the wing-backs option and Alex Pritchard's importance as Lee Johnson’s side prepare for Cambridge test
Sunderland were left dejected after squandering a lead against 10-man Shrewsbury – but the Black Cats must pick themselves up quickly as they prepare to face Cambridge this weekend.
Despite the side’s poor run of form, Lee Johnson’s team remain sixth in the League One table and do have games in hand on most of the clubs above them.
Still, recent performances have raised concerns on Wearside as the Black Cats try to regain some momentum.
Here are some of the selection dilemmas facing Johnson ahead of the trip to Abbey Stadium:
The Corry Evans dilemma
Following his arrival from Blackburn in the summer Corry Evans was named team captain, yet we are yet to see the best of the Northern Ireland international.
After a promising debut against Wigan, the 31-year-old has been sidelined with multiple injury setbacks and struggled since returning to the side last month.
If Sunderland want to continue to implement their desired style which involves playing out from the back, the side’s defender’s need options in front of them - especially from midfield.
It was thought Evans’ experience and ability in possession would help, yet his return hasn’t had the desired effect.
Carl Winchester was moved back into midfield at Shrewsbury, with Evans dropping to the bench.
Johnson is still searching for the right balance in the engine room.
The wing-back option
With no senior full-backs available due to injuries, Johnson admitted he may have to alter his side’s formation in the coming weeks.
Against Shrewsbury, Lynden Gooch and Luke O’Nien started on the right and left of a four-man defence respectively, while deploying a back three and wing-backs is also an option.
The latter is a formation which could suit the Sunderland squad, given there is a range of centre-backs and wide players to choose from.
Yet Johnson has also admitted it would take work on the training ground to effectively alter his side’s system. Time which they possibly haven’t had given the midweek fixture.
Against Cambridge it seems more likely Johnson will stick with a back four, while next week’s Papa John’s Trophy match against Oldham may provide a chance to tweak the system.
Getting the best out of Alex Pritchard
It’s also been a stop-start season for Alex Pritchard so far, after the 28-year-old missed most of pre-season and also suffered a neck injury a few weeks ago.
The playmaker has shown his quality in flashes this campaign, most notably with an excellent finish to open the scoring at Shrewsbury.
While the whole team faded in the second half, Pritchard was Sunderland’s best player at The Montgomery Waters Meadow Stadium as he operated on the left. That allowed the attacker to cut inside onto his stronger right foot and pose a threat.
While it may seem an obvious decision to keep Prithard on the left, Johnson will also be looking at how he can provide a sufficient supply for top scorer Ross Stewart, whose chances and goals have started to dry up in recent matches.
Aiden McGeady and Elliot Embleton both started the season in the side but weren’t named in the starting XI at Shrewsbury.
Finding the right attacking combination will be key if Sunderland are to get back to winning ways.