The crucial Sunderland selection calls Lee Johnson will have to make ahead of Ipswich Town clash
It has the feel of a crucial week for Sunderland.
An alarming dip in league form was followed by two underwhelming cup performances, particularly in the FA Cup first round exit to Mansfield Town.
Lee Johnson insisted that his side would be stronger for the current international break, saying it would offer the chance to get some key senior players back to top fitness.
The visit of Ipswich Town on Saturday afternoon will provide a stern test, with Paul Cook’s side recovering from a sluggish start to the campaign to push towards the play-off places.
Beyond that comes two away games in a matter of days, against sides in the bottom half of the table and from which the Black Cats will be expected to take a solid points return.
Here, we take an in-depth look at the key calls Johnson will have to make as he bids to get his side back in the groove...
A fairly comfortable outing against admittedly limited opposition in Bradford City, which included one excellent late save and a stop in the penalty shootout, will likely mean Thorben Hoffmann retains his place in goal.
After a tricky fortnight Lee Burge looked to be pushing hard for a recall, particularly given his strong cup performances, until an error in the defeat to Mansfield Town.Far from a decided position in the long term, but for now you'd expect the German to continue.
THE BACK FOUR (/FIVE)
Johnson admitted in the aftermath of the defeat to Sheffield Wednesday that one option to try and deal with the physical approach of opposition sides was to play three central defenders.
That will certainly be in his mind, though Paul Cook's Ipswich Town will almost certainly line up in the 4-2-3-1 formation that has been pretty much a constant through his managerial career.
In the full back positions his options are limited. Niall Huggins and Denver Hume remain some way off returning from injury, meaning Carl Winchester and Dennis Cirkin will likely continue.
At the heart of defence Johnson has a bigger dilemma.
Callum Doyle looked in need of a break after those two defeats to Rotherham and Sheffield Wednesday, but Johnson found himself turning to him by half time of the next game as his side struggled for intent and aggression in possession.
Frederik Alves' role in a number of impressive cup runs means many are understandably keen to see him given a chance in the league, but he was one of those replaced at the break against Mansfield and the head coach has made clear he wants to see more in possession from the West Ham loanee.
Tom Flanagan and Bailey Wright have impressed at times this season, but have struggled in the league of late.
Getting the right combination will be key and one of Johnson's biggest calls.
After the heavy defeat at Rotherham United, Johnson went to a more orthodox midfield three at Sheffield Wednesday in the hope of finding some stability.
It worked, to an extent.
Sunderland matched their opponents for much of the first half, but gifted up two incredibly soft goals that undid much of their good work.
They also, it should be said, struggled to turn much of the possession they did have into significant openings.
Dan Neil's ability to break lines with his forward passing and dribbling means he is surely a must-pick on home turf, leaving Johnson with a dilemma as to whether he picks Corry Evans, Luke O'Nien or both.
O'Nien brings physicality and energy but has been short of form, while Evans brings poise in possession but did not have a significant impact against Darren Moore's side.
THE WIDE AREAS
Aiden McGeady was playing through the pain barrier in the lead up to the recent break, and Johnson identified getting the Irishman on a fitness programme that will have him back at his best as one of his key priorities for the break.
Knowing the stakes are high both for the visit at Ipswich Town and the games beyond, the head coach will be eager to have one of his strongest ball players in from the start.
On the other flank the head coach has a tougher call.
Lynden Gooch, Aiden O’Brien and Leon Dajaku have all impressed in patches this season, but have struggled for consistency and the latter in particular is still adjusting to the role. In a game where the defensive responsibilities on the wingers will be significant, the German may best be deployed as an impact player.
One option Johnson has, particularly if he goes with three midfielders or a second striker, is to move a playmaker such as Elliot Embleton out to the right.
It's a role he played regularly at Blackpool, and means the head coach can keep technical players with bravery in possession on the pitch while ensuring his side is not exposed off it.
THE BIG QUESTION UP TOP
One of the key decisions Johnson has to make is over the balance of his attack.
As we have already discussed, he has the option of going to a midfield three. If not, then he has a big call to make as to whether he sticks with his usual template of playing an additional playmaker as a number ten, or whether to reprise Nathan Broadhead's partnership with Ross Stewart.
The pair combined to devastating effect against Cheltenham Town, before Broadhead suffered an injury in the latter stages of that game.
Johnson is eager to play the two together more often, sensing that it will inject more dynamism into his side. Broadhead's willingness to make early runs behind the opposition defence certainly gives the attack another dimension, but the question is whether an opponent as strong as Ipswich is the time to reintroduce it.
Either way, it's clear Broadhead has a crucial role to play if Sunderland are to turn their form around.