As it stands: Sunderland 23-9–8–6 (9th, 35 pts, GD 7) Wycombe 24-12–8–4 (1st, 44 pts, GD 10)
Form: Sunderland DDWDW | Wycombe WLLLD
Last time out: Sunderland 3-1 Lincoln | Wycombe 1-1 Ipswich
|P||Sunderland W||Wycombe W||D||Ave. GpG*|
*Goals per game
Previous meeting: Wycombe 1-0 Sunderland (League One, 19/10/19)
Setting the Scene
After our fourth football-less weekend of the season, we’re back to matchday on a Saturday for the first time this side of Christmas. It feels like a sense of order has been restored to the calendar; now the question is can we follow suit on the pitch? We went some way to doing so on New Year’s Day, earning a point against an out-of-sorts yet still tough Ipswich team, but leaving the lair of another fallen giant with all three in the bag would restore spirits to pre-Oxford levels.
Sunderland are rejuvenating if not yet fully rejuvenated. They’ve hit a bit of form and, as we found with Portsmouth on Boxing Day, they’ll be a different side to that which we beat quite comfortably back in October. That’s not to say they’re suddenly hot favourites for promotion, but this will be a sterner examination than the one we might have anticipated a few weeks ago. Still, what a place it would be to return to winning ways and ensure we remain top of the pile.
Last season: 5th in League One (lost to Charlton in play-off final)
Manager: Phil Parkinson (appointed October 2019)
Top scorer: Chris Maguire (RW) – 7
Most assists: Chris Maguire – 5
Style of play: Possession but with long balls, width, attacks slightly weighted to right
A Deeper Look
*Sunderland and Wycombe rank 22nd and 23rd in League One for tackles attempted per game (19.1 and 18.3 respectively)
We’ve all done our fair share of mocking Sunderland’s plight, but that this is a Wycombe league fixture remains a bit surreal. We go to the Stadium of Light as equals, though. While the hosts’ form and home record (they’ve lost just twice there since the start of 2018/19) probably gives them a slight edge – at least compared to our unspectacular away record and recent mini-slump – we are, without wishing to table-gaze, nine points clear of the Lads for a reason.
While we only won the reverse fixture 1-0, we were able to control the game more or less from start to finish. Phil Parkinson had only taken the job a couple of days prior, there was a distinct lack of identity about the team he had inherited, and we were operating at peak levels. It was a victory built on defensive lockdown – something we’ve been unable to implement to optimum levels with enforced changes at the over the last month.
Sunderland will be the third wing-back-utilising opponents we’ve faced in as many games, and while they’ve only recently switched to a 3-4-3 so won’t be as well-versed as Coventry were in their 3-4-2-1, the right-hand side of our defence has evidently been weakened by the absence of Jack Grimmer. The Scotsman hopes to return for the trip to Wearside, but if he’s not available, we’ll need to solidify that flank, as we did to good effect in phases of the draw with Ipswich – who went 3-4-1-2 – with David Wheeler protecting stand-in right-back Giles Phillips in a 4-4-2 out of possession. It’s an area Sunderland will look to exploit; left winger Lynden Gooch has scored three in his last six matches and six in 17 all season, while left wing-back Denver Hume – a product of the club’s academey – is among the league’s best ball carriers for that position, completing 2.2 dribbles per 90 and in the final third.
It’s a good thing we disrupt the flow and slow things down then – Parkinson’s words, not mine. To be honest, he’s not wrong, but how will he prepare his players to combat that? Standout centre-half Jordan Willis – who assumes more of a sweeper role – is an athletic presence in the back three, but Lee Catermole is long gone and Aiden McGeady – who arguably should have seen red for a rash challenge in the reverse fixture – frozen out. We don’t need a repeat of last March’s Battle of Adams Park, but Sunderland aren’t as up to the more robust aspects of the game as they could do with being. Of course, they could go and outplay us, but that seems unlikely given that Parky is no disciple of tiki-taka. As you can see from the highlights, their three goals in the win over Lincoln came from a corner, taking advantage of defensive dilly-dallying, and a long ball over the top.
We were probably 10-20% below our best against Ipswich, but a proper break may allow us to edge towards 100% this time out – depending on how many of Grimmer, Dom Gape and Curtis Thompson are back in the side. The shape-shifting 4-3-3/4-4-2 might well be employed again, in which case we could see a very similar approach to that on New Year’s day. Paul Smyth playing off Adebayo Akinfenwa in a front two is an enticing prospect but one we’re yet to see, as is a Bayo and Wheeler partnership for ultimate aerial bombardment – a mild problem area for Sunderland, who conceded to Lincoln a goal which could easily have been scored by Wycombe: long diagonal from the left, flicked on by the head of big John Akinde and into the path of the striker to tuck away. We could also do with our big man out there to help nullify the Lads’ set-piece potency; they’ve scored seven goals from such situations, ranking behind only us on nine.
Whether alongside the Beast or in place of, Alex Samuel’s defensive nightmare fuel will surely be pumped into proceedings at some point – especially coming off the back of his best outing since returning from injury in November – while Nnamdi Ofoborh may get the chance to continue his impressive form in the deeper midfield role, which he looks capable of expanding upon with deft through balls and long-range shooting (if he’s been putting in some target practice). And how about Rolando Aarons? The winger is due to return to parent club Newcastle on Monday and hasn’t set the world alight in his time as a Wanderer, but what better parting gift than a winner at the home of the Toon’s arch-rivals? As Gary Neville – or Tinie Tempah, depending on your preference – would say, it’s written in the stars.
We should see a very different to the first one Parkinson selected at Adams Park three months ago. Jon McLaughlin has re-established himself as number one having been dropped for Lee Burge when we last met, while Jordan Lynch could be back after missing the Lincoln game through illness. Luke O’Nien needs no introduction, of course, but has been occupying an unfamiliar (to us at least) right wing-back position. Between them, Gooch and Maguire have bagged almost three times as many goals as main strikers Charlie Wyke, Marc McNulty – our nemesis while at Coventry – and Will Grigg. However, Kyle Lafferty and Billy Sharp have this week been linked with moves to the Stadium of Light (please wait until after this game).
Worst case scenario: we start with the same personnel as last week – except for Bayo. Best case scenario: the three key men are on that team sheet at 2pm on Saturday. Regardless, though, setting up to allow for fluidity is a must.
In the Middle: Andy Davies
|Games||Yellows||Reds||Penalties||Last game||Last refereed Sunderland||Last refereed Wycombe|
|20 (15 Champ, 2 L1, 1 FA Cup, 1 League Cup, 1 FLT)||69||2||8||Fulham 1-0 Stoke (Champ)||Millwall 1-1 Sunderland (Champ, 03/03/18)||AFC Wimbledon 2-1 Wycombe (L1, 27/04/19)|