The Second XI Theory: Putting Phil Parkinson's League One promotion claim under the microscope
Phil Parkinson was outlining why Chris Maguire’s contribution from the bench was so key.
The introduction of the salary cap rules, Parkinson said, has levelled the palying field in terms of quality of starting XI across the division.
This, though, is a unique season in which a relentless hectic schedule makes injuries inevitable.
Parkinson, then, believes the sides who force their way into the top two will be those which can cope due to a strong ‘second XI’. As such, he pointed to being able to rest Maguire and still produce a result, as evidence that the Black Cats are in a good position.
So just where do Sunderland stand on that front?
We assessed the squads and the ‘other XIs’ of the top seven as it stands to see. While each club’s strongest XI is probably as fiercely debated as Sunderland’s, we’ve simplified that with some simple criteria.
Anyone in the top 11 for minutes played in League One for their club this season can’t be considered for selection…..
Other XI: Matthews; McLaughlin, Sanderson, Willis; Diamond, Dobson, Embleton, McFadzean; O'Brien, Graham, Grigg
Parkinson insists that he has as good a forward line as anyone, but the inconsistent finishing this season means there are some reservations amongst supporters.
Undoubtedly, though, the Black Cats look in good order given that there are two genuine options for every position.
Elliot Embleton's imminent return is timely, given the squad the kind of attacking midfielder that has been lacking for much of the last year.
Other XI: Gyollai; Kanu, Naismith, Mason, Edwards, Blake-Tracy; Broom, Reed, Hamilton; Jade-Jones, Eisa
Free-scoring Peterborough will take encouragement from the fact that Jonson Clarke-Harris and Siriki Dembele have started the season well, meaning that the departure of Ivan Toney has not been too keenly felt.
Mo Eisa is a fine iption in reserve to those two, and there is excitement about Jade-Jones, though he is currently sideined with injury.
The depth in midfield is excellent, but not quite so much in defence and that is one area where they is perhaps some vulnerability.
Other XI: Cornell; Vincent-Young, Woolfenden, McGuinness, Kenlock; Lankester, Downes, Huws, Judge; Norwood, Jackson
Memories of Ipswich's surprising collapse last season remain fresh, with Paul Lambert's rotation policy ironically one of the reasons many fans felt they fell short.
A look at their 'second XI' shows why it would be a remarkable failure if they did not trouble the top two this time around.
They have good cover in every position, with their 'other' centre-back pairing stepping up and impressing in recent weeks.
They have depth, quality and experience that should see them through the long winter.
We did, of course, say the same last year.
Other XI: Ross, Gotts, Walsh, Roughan, Melbourne, Howarth, Edun, Cann, Archibard, Scully, Morton
Lincoln have made a superb start to the season and are up near the top of merit.
Michael Appleton has overseen a move to a younger, quicker side and the early results are hugely impressive.
Matching the depth of the other squads is clearly a challenge, and they will need performances from young loanees such as Robbie Gotts.
Callum Morton, on loan from West Brom, is highly rated and one to watch when fit after a recent injury.
Other XI: Long; Coyle, Greaves, Astur, Fleming; Batty, Jones, Sheaf; Adelakun, Mayer, Eaves
Hull City have a first-choice XI as strong as anyone in the division, and you would expect the very talented Hakeeb Adelakun to force his way into that equation over the course of the season.
Lewie Coyle and Tom Eaves are proven at this level, and are playes who have impressed against Sunderland for their previous clubs.
By and large, though, the XI is reliant on young players without much history at this level.
As such, you wonder whether their form might be slightly more vulnerable to injury and suspension.
Other XI: Maynard-Brewer; Matthews, Inniss, Barker, Maatsen; Gilbey, Williams, Maddison; Smyth, Bogle, Aneke
Charlton's second XI is clearly skewed by the fact that many of their summer signings arrived late in the window.
Even so, the talent in the team above underlines why, with one of the most highly-rated managers in the division at the helm, they can be expected to compete.
It always seemed clear that they would be stronger in the second half of the campaign after the summer turmoil, and so it is ominous that they are already fifth, with a game in hand.
Other XI: Bass; Bolton, Mnoga, Nicolaisen, Pring; Hackett-Fairchild (currently out on loan), Morris, Close, Jacobs; Hiwula, Harrison
The arrival of Jordy Hiwula has given Portsmouth a slightly different option up front and it's one they needed.
Their squad looked a little one-paced before then.
Like Sunderland, they have good depth in the spine of their squad and particularly in central midfield.
The question is whether they have enough variety in forward areas.
Marcus Harness has been tremendous, but Kenny Jackett will not want to be too reliant on him and over the course of the season, keeping Michael Jacobs fit is important.
The long-term repercussions of the salary cap rules will clearly be to limit the spending power of the more established clubs in League One.
Indeed, Sunderland and Portsmouth already experienced that this summer, having to change targets in response to the rules.
This season, though, we may see that gap stay relatively wide because of the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on club finances.
Looking at the teams above, the ‘bigger’ clubs in terms of fanbase seem to have deeper squads more capable of managing an injury or availability crisis.
Sunderland look well set in terms of depth, and the same certainly looks to be true of Ipswich Town and Charlton Athletic.
One team to watch, without question, is Fleetwood.
They have invested heavily and their ‘second XI’ features established names like Mark Duffy and Barrie McKay.