The FIVE Sunderland players who have really staked a claim to Lee Johnson ahead of League One opener
With just one game of pre-season remaining, Lee Johnson will no doubt have a strong idea of the side he is likely name against Wigan Athletic on August 7.
Much, of course, will depend upon Sunderland’s remaining forays into the transfer market and whether further additions can be secured before the League One campaign kicks-off.
But internally, there are also some players who will have given Johnson something to really think about ahead of the visit of the Latics.
For in the Black Cats’ pre-season campaign thus far, there have been some clear winners – those who have caught the eye and staked a claim for sustained first-team involvement.
Here, we take a look at five of those players and what the future may hold for them after a productive pre-season:
The goalkeeping position was an area where plenty of scrutiny was applied last season, and a summer refresh was undoubtedly needed.
Initially, the general assumption was that another senior goalkeeper would come in to challenge Lee Burge – but Patterson has been given his chance to stake a claim in the early weeks of pre-season.
And he’s taken it. The youngsters is yet to concede a goal and, while sterner tests will undoubtedly await in League One, he has shown some moments of quality.
His distribution is improving and Patterson is starting to show the bravery that Johnson had called for from his goalkeepers when coming for crosses.
There have been some shaky and perhaps nervy moments from the youngster, but it’s important to remember that these are still fairly early days in his development.
It’s not clear whether Sunderland will opt for the experience of Burge to begin the League One campaign or put their faith in Patterson – but it seems fairly certain that the young stopper will play a key role in the first-team across the season, even if that is pushing and challenging his more game-laden counterpart.
Arguably the standout performer of a year ago, Neil has once again put himself in the forefront of the manager’s mind ahead of the new League One campaign.
The pressure on the youngster was perhaps greater this time around, given Sunderland’s lack of midfielders at the start of pre-season and the fact his quality was well-know after last summer.
But the academy graduate has embraced the challenge at every step and has once again caught the eye.
His performances have been consistent and he certainly brings the energy and drive that was so often lacking in the engine room last season.
Even his start at left-back against Harrogate Town saw the youngster shine and that versatility will do his chances no harm.
There is now competition in the centre of the park – with Luke O’Nien, Corry Evans, Carl Winchester and Elliot Embleton all vying for starts.
Neil, though, has undoubtedly put himself in serious contention for a place in the side against Wigan.
One of the players who fans will have been most keen to watch this pre-season given his impressive loan spell at Blackpool, Embleton hasn’t disappointed.
There was a sense of disappointment that the academy graduate wasn’t given a sustained run of games in the first-team last season, but it now seems inevitable that the 22-year-old will start against Wigan.
He’s looked lively in pre-season and has certainly impressed in the more advanced role he played against York City and Harrogate Town, where he had the freedom to roam into pockets of space and really dictate the play.
Indeed, it was notable at York that both of Sunderland’s best moves in the game – the one that led to the goal and the one that won a late penalty – were kick-started by Embleton finding a pocket of space and then playing a clever pass.
His goals at Harrogate showed the variation he can bring to the forward line too, as he showed defenders both inside and outside while finishing with both feet.
Providing he can stay injury free, this could be a big season for Embleton at Sunderland.
Winchester was in-and-out of the side after his arrival in January, but is one player can expect to play a key role this term.
He’s a man trusted by Johnson with the duo having worked together at Oldham, and is someone the Sunderland boss believes could play at a higher level.
The Northern Irishman has played a variety of roles in pre-season, but it could be where he began the game at Harrogate – at right-back – that is his calling in the short-term.
Sunderland are notably short of defensive options but WInchester showed in that game that he can certainly plug the gap on the right-hand side of the back four.
In the longer-term, expect a return to midfield – but for now it may be a makeshift defensive role.
There are still some major question marks over Sunderland’s forward line following the departure of Charlie Wyke – and more of a cutting edge is undoubtedly required.
But it’s a testament to Stewart’s performances thus far that signing a forward is not the immediate priority for the Black Cats (although it undoubtedly still is one before the window closes).
The Scot has impressed and while he is yet to find the net, his all-round performances show the crucial role he can play this term.
He has big goal-scoring boots to fill, but his style of play may yet allow those around him to contribute more too.