Two trajectories, mood music and full-back focus... Sunderland v Ipswich Town
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Ipswich Town take on Sunderland in a big League One clash at the Stadium of Light this afternoon. STUART WATSON previews the action.
Ipswich went eight games without a win at the start of the season, but their form over the last 14 matches now reads W8 D5 L2. Paul Cook’s new-look squad are hot on the heels of the top-six, having recorded big wins at Portsmouth (4-0) and Wycombe (4-1), and appear to be on an upward trajectory.
Sunderland won 14 of their opening 17 matches, but come into this match winless in six. Lee Johnson’s men are seemingly in a bad place.
The Blacks Cats dropped out of the play-off places following successive league defeats to Charlton (1-0 at home), Rotherham (5-1 away) and Sheffield Wednesday (3-0 away).
Since then, they crashed out of the FA Cup to League Two side Mansfield (1-0 home loss) and subsequently drew 1-1 with another fourth-tier side, Bradford, on home soil in the Papa John’s Trophy (losing the penalty shootout).
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The ‘Wise Men Say’ podcast, dedicated to all things Sunderland, makes for interesting listening going into this match.
“This does feel like a massive game for Lee Johnson - he needs something.”
“There’s a trend of Sunderland managers who are all happy to lap up the 40,000 strong supporter base when we’re winning games, but as soon as there’s a hint of trouble they tell us the expectations are too high.”
“A fast start is essential. If it goes bad it could turn pretty quickly.”
“The fans are going to be expecting a reaction from those two terrible league games. Both were absolutely disgraceful performances. To follow those up with the cup games... there’s just been no discernible reaction from one game to the other.”
Ipswich have got a real opportunity to turn a 30,000+ home crowd against their team.
These two sides have two of the best strikers in the division in Macauley Bonne (11 goals) and Ross Stewart (10 goals).
Enough has been said and written about Bonne. He’ll be itching to get back on a scoring run again having bagged just one (at Wycombe) in his last five outings.
Stewart has been revelation since arriving in the North East from Scottish side Ross County back in January. Manager Johnson believes the 25-year-old is a ‘top-10 Championship player at least, with the potential to play in the Premier League’.
Sunderland have found themselves thin in the full-back department since key injuries to Denver Hume and Niall Huggins.
Carl Winchester, normally a midfielder, has been playing at right-back of late, with inexperienced 19-year-old Dennis Cirkin at left-back.
If you look back at the goals Sunderland have been conceding recently there is a definite theme. They are simply not stopping or defending crosses from wide areas.
Might Lee Johnson look to ditch his preferred 4-3-3 / 4-2-3-1 system today and go with wing-backs?
From an Ipswich perspective, Paul Cook has decisions to make in the full-back areas too.
Bailey Clements rightly received plenty of plaudits following his impressive league debut in last weekend’s goalless home draw with Oxford. The 21-year-old wasn’t anywhere near as good in the FA Cup win at Oldham on Tuesday night though. Is it a risk playing him on such a big stage?
Assuming Hayden Coulson is still injured, the other options would be to recall Matt Penney or move either Kane Vincent-Young or Janoi Donacien across to the opposite side (both have played left-back plenty of times in their careers).
On the right, will the attack-minded Vincent-Young or the defensively sound Donacien be preferred? We’ll see.
THE SUPPORT CAST
Cook’s biggest selection headache will be around who plays in the three attacking roles behind Bonne.
Wes Burns, Bersant Celina and Kyle Edwards didn’t have their most effective performances in last weekend’s goalless draw against Oxford.
Conor Chaplin and Sone Aluko are the two players applying the most pressure on them as it stands. Cook may be tempted to get Scott Fraser back in the attacking unit too.
It’s an embarrassment of riches. Finding the right combination for the occasion could be key.
WORD OF WARNING
It’s right that everyone should be feeling excited and cautiously optimistic going into this game.
There will be a cynical voice at the back of many peoples’ heads saying Ipswich traditionally give a leg up to teams out of form.
Sunderland away, no matter their current form, is undoubtedly a tough fixture .
They’ve beaten Wigan, Wycombe and MK Dons this season and recorded big wins against Cheltenham (5-0 at home) and Crewe (4-0 away).
They did, let’s not forget, also win their opening seven games at The Stadium of Light.
And they do have experienced players like Tom Flanagan, Bailey Wright, Corry Evans, Aiden McGeady, Alex Pritchard and Aiden O’Brien.
Ipswich will need to be bang at it in all departments if this is to be another memorable away day for the 2,000 travelling fans.