League One side Sunderland gave themselves a massive boost yesterday afternoon, beating fellow promotion rivals Wycombe Wanderers 3-1 and going two points clear at the top of the table.
Gareth Ainsworth’s Chairboys were joint top with Sheffield Wednesday and Portsmouth before yesterday’s third-tier action, but a 1-0 loss for Wednesday against Morecambe and Pompey’s narrow defeat against Wigan Athletic has allowed Lee Johnson’s side to steal a march on their promotion competitors and fire themselves to the summit of League One.
Barring their 1-0 defeat to Burton Albion at the Pirelli Stadium, the Black Cats have started their season perfectly and have impressed despite their slow start to the window in terms of transfers and last season’s disappointment.
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After losing out to Lincoln City in the play-off semi-finals last year and subsequently losing top scorer Charlie Wyke to league rivals Wigan Athletic, the Wearside club could have easily folded in the early stages of the 2021/22 campaign.
However, they look certain to be in the race for promotion again based on their current form and will want to get back to the Championship at the fourth time of asking. Their victory against Wycombe has taken them one step closer to doing that – but there are a few dilemmas manager Johnson will need to contend with after this 3-1 victory.
We take a look at just two ahead of next weekend’s away tie at Sheffield Wednesday.
Room for Broadhead?
With Charlie Wyke’s departure in the summer, Everton loanee Nathan Broadhead must have thought he would be in with a shout of playing regularly at the Stadium of Light, coming in as a highly-rated member of the Toffees’ youth side.
However, Ross Stewart has stepped up to the plate this season in his place, scoring four goals in five league games and grabbing himself a vital brace against Wycombe yesterday afternoon. Because of this Lee Johnson is unlikely to drop the 25-year-old whilst he’s in fine form.
Broadhead was an unused substitute yesterday and at 23 years old, he will be desperate to get himself in the shop window with a first-team breakthrough at Goodison Park looking less and less likely.
But he’s unlikely to win a sufficient amount of game time if Stewart maintains his form and with the pressure on the Black Cats to win promotion this season after several failed attempts, there will be little room for them to experiment with players and formations.
It makes you wonder when Johnson will give Stewart a break and bring Broadhead in, with a formation change looking unlikely at this stage. As the saying goes, if something isn’t broken, don’t fix it.
Where does O’Brien fit in?
After scoring a hat-trick against Blackpool in midweek, Aiden O’Brien can count himself unlucky not to have started yesterday ahead of Lyndon Gooch or Aiden McGeady.
The latter came top of the League One assists tally last term and Gooch can be unstoppable when he’s in fine form, but after Tuesday night’s display against Championship side Blackpool, the 27-year-old is knocking on the door for a start.
The winger may have only recorded five goal contributions in 34 League One appearances last term in what was his first season at the Stadium of Light, but he has a considerable amount of Championship experience under his belt and could potentially provide the attacking threat needed to reach the second tier.
Although it could be argued he will be a regular player for the Black Cats regardless of how often he starts, it remains to be seen if he can be just as effective coming off the bench.
O’Brien admitted he wanted to be a regular starter for Sunderland after Tuesday evening’s Carabao Cup tie and to ensure the Irishman doesn’t become an unhappy figure behind the scenes, we could potentially see him starting in their upcoming games if he impresses in training.