Sunderland lost in the worst way possible in the play-off final last season but appear to be steadily bouncing back to be a heavyweight in League One.
Sunderland have had a very indifferent 12 months, from losing the play-off final at Wembley, to being just a couple of points away from this year’s automatic promotion places. Jack Ross was relieved of his duties following a defeat to Lincoln City back in October following a poor run of results for the Black Cats. He was replaced by former Bolton manager Phil Parkinson who appears to have the Stadium of Light rocking again as they aim to return to the Sky Bet Championship.
Who has stood out this season for Sunderland, though? We look in this article…
Chris Maguire has been the heartbeat of this resurgent Sunderland side this year and can often be found at the centre of anything good Sunderland create going forward. The Scottish midfielder has scored ten goals of his own as well as setting up his teammates another nine times, allowing him to become one of the division’s most influential players, and it shows because when Maguire is in the mood, it appears that Sunderland can suffocate whoever they are coming up against.
Maguire was perhaps a regular number ten during his days with both Oxford United and Bury but under Ross and, certainly now under Parkinson, he occupies more of an inside forward role. Starting from the right with Lynden Gooch typically down the left, there is an emphasis for Maguire to cut in and attract the attention of both the full-back and the centre-back. Not only can he cause damage when he is on the ball, but he is clever enough to move into areas that allow Luke O’Nien to break forward and deliver a cross for the variety of target men they possess; most frequently Parkinson has used a combination of both Charlie Wyke and Kyle Lafferty.
The Scot can also play through the middle as a less traditional number nine and has played there at several times this season. When Sunderland can feel the game slipping away, they often stick Maguire up top next to a target man to give the centre-backs something different to deal with. Maguire is often the pressing forward who leads the Sunderland counter-press and forces opposing defenders into making mistakes. His intelligence of when to press and how high has helped Sunderland suffocate many teams since the start of the New Year, which has come in tandem with the Black Cats’ rise up the table into a play-off spot.
A summer signing from established outfit Coventry City, Willis has certainly made a good start to life in the North East as he looks to lead Sunderland back into the Sky Bet Championship at the second time of asking. Willis played a huge part in Coventry’s promotion from Sky Bet League Two in the 2017/2018 campaign, with Phil Parkinson looking to lean on those experiences during the run-in.
The Coventry-born defender has created a formidable partnership with Alim Ozturk in recent weeks which has coincided with the Black Cats’ rise into a play-off spot. Willis has be instrumental in the way that manager Parkinson wants to play football with his passing abilities a crucial part of Sunderland moving the ball through the thirds efficiently and effectively, and his passing range can help the ball get into the players such as Maguire and Gooch to cause the opposition problems.
The defender is commanding in the air and at times this season teams have looked to go long against Sunderland as they see a lack of ability when it comes to winning the first phase, however, Willis’ jumping reach is outstanding and has seen him go toe-to-toe with some of the division’s biggest strikers and comfortably deal with the threat the pose.