AUTOMATIC promotion contenders Sunderland meet prime play-off candidates Doncaster on Friday teatime in League One and EFL pundit Gab Sutton (@_FootbalLab) picks his best bet.
Sunderland v Doncaster | Friday 19th April 2019, 17:15 | Sky Sports
Sunderland and Doncaster have experienced very different histories.
The Black Cats are known for the days of Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn’s little-and-large strike-partnership which inspired the 1998-99 Division One title, the prelude to 15 top-flight seasons in 18 years – albeit including the 2002-03 and 2005-06 no-shows – prior to the recent decline.
Doncaster, meanwhile, have a more modest background; they have never graced the top flight and spent parts of the 20th century in and out of the Football League before a John Ryan-inspired transformation enabled them to climb as high as the Championship.
The influential chairman’s 2013 exit gave way to a rocky yo-yo period but under Grant McCann, the club are back on an upward trajectory – will they impress on their first visit to Wearside since a Roker Park jaunt in 1988?
Sunderland’s bad defensive day
Sunderland lost 5-4 at home to Coventry last time out, looking vulnerable in transition.
Questions were asked of individual defenders such as Tom Flanagan and Jack Baldwin, but perhaps the vulnerabilities were a by-product of an adventurous tactical shift from manager Jack Ross.
The Scot wanted to pair physical front-man Charlie Wyke, who has at other times struggled in isolation, with predatory poacher Will Grigg.
From an attacking perspective, it is easy to see why Ross was keen on that combination – and of course the Black Cats did manage four goals.
Defensively, though, they left themselves somewhat short in terms of midfield insurance.
The real McCann
Some wrote Grant McCann off after a middling two years at Peterborough – but they arguably represented a reasonable start to his managerial career and the Northern Irishman has learnt a lot from his time there.
The two things McCann was criticised for at his previous club was the number of errors his side were prone to – and the slow tempo performances they sometimes produced.
At Doncaster though, he has proved that it is possible to implement possession principles without the two problems surfacing.
Donny have not made that many mistakes at the back – and the tempo of their interplay is quicker than it was the previous season, thanks to the addition of wide right forward Mallik Wilks.
A month ago, the South Yorkshire outfit looked in danger of dropping out of the Play-Off places due to a run of seven league games without a win and three goals scored in that sequence – followed by news of injury to deep-lying playmaker Benjamin Whiteman.
In his absence though they started like a rocket against Bristol Rovers – two goals in the first 15 minutes en route to a 4-1 thumping – which was the prelude to a four-game winning streak, with Whiteman now returning.
Doncaster needed that run due to Peterborough’s resurgence – ironically under their former manager Darren Ferguson – and avoiding defeat at Sunderland would help ease any nerves prior to a favourable final three fixtures.
The Tactics Board
Perhaps unusually for a team going into the final four games of an automatic promotion race, there are numerous starting XIs that Sunderland could deploy.
Full-backs Luke O’Nien and Bryan Oviedo are strongest going forward, while supremely gifted wide man Aiden McGeady is not the most switched on defensively but arguably too important to leave out.
Incorporating each of those players along with two strikers – even with George Honeyman grafting to an extent on the right – risks leaving gaps in other areas.
Ross will not want to oversee another defensive horror-show – so his solution may be to sacrifice Wyke, despite his good form, to accommodate the luxury of McGeady, with fit again ball-winner Lee Cattermole coming in for Max Power to partner Grant Leadbitter and firm up those central areas in a 4-2-3-1.
Doncaster’s game does not revolve massively around pace – it’s more about clever combination play as fit again marksman John Marquis and evergreen playmaker James Coppinger bring different types of qualities.
The task for Sunderland will therefore be to press their opponents high and stopping them getting into their rhythm, which we can expect them to do in front of their home fans.
The Betting Angle
Before Saturday’s fixtures, we had seen League One teams concede four or more goals on 19 occasions in 2019. Out of the 16 occasions in which the team in question is not Rochdale and did not play Luton in the following game, they followed up the porous defensive display by conceding a combined 16 goals next time out.
That one goal per game defensive record would produce a return that only the current top two in League One have bettered.
This implies that the shock of the defensive horror-show can nudge a manager towards conservative tweaks and more work on rear-guard action in training, with more emphasis placed perhaps on the importance of avoiding another capitulation.
That is not to say Sunderland will not attack in this game by any means, but it might be worth backing them to keep their shape and be slightly more alert to second balls – plus their Expected Goals Against (xGA) return in the four games that preceded Coventry read 0.51 with three conceded in that sample.
We’re therefore taking Coral’s 1/3 quotes on Doncaster to score Under 1.5 Goals.
Sunderland v Doncaster – Doncaster to score Under 1.5 Goals (1/3 Coral)