The key Sunderland selection decisions facing Lee Johnson ahead of trip to Wembley

Normally, a side on an eight-game unbeaten run probably wouldn’t be contemplating making changes to the side for a Wembley final.

Friday, 12th March 2021, 8:19 am
Chris Maguire, Lynden Gooch and Bailey Wright: The key selection decisions facing Lee Johnson ahead of Sunderland's trip to Wembley

But what has made Sunderland’s fine streak of form even more remarkable is that it has been produced amid an injury crisis, where a host of key players have been sidelined.

A number of those players have returned to training ahead of the Papa John’s Trophy final with Tranmere Rovers on Sunday – leaving Lee Johnson with some key decisions to make across the park.

So where do his big dilemmas lie, and what factors will be taken into consideration? We take a look:

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THE BACK FOUR

Most of Sunderland's injuries in recent weeks have come in the back line.

Jordan Willis and Arbenit Xhemajli remain out for the remainder of the campaign, while the final is likely to come too soon for Denver Hume – with Johnson saying he will likely require at least one under-23 game before returning to the fold.

Conor McLaughlin is another defender who will continue to be monitored ahead of the game.

But in Bailey Wright and Tom Flanagan, Johnson could welcome back two experienced members of his back four.

Wright was due to train on Wednesday while Flanagan played half an hour of the win at Portsmouth as he made his own return from injury.

Their return is timely given the impressive Dion Sanderson is unable to play at Wembley having featured for Wolves’ under-21 side earlier in the competition.

The loanee has built-up a strong partnership with Luke O’Nien in recent weeks and one of Johnson’s key decision will be whether to keep O’Nien in the centre of defence or move him elsewhere.

Were Flanagan and Wright both fit enough to start, then the former Wycombe man could be deployed as a right-back – but Johnson could be hesitant to field both of the central defenders given the risk of a recurrence or setback ahead of some important League One fixtures on the horizon.

Neither Wright nor Flanagan have played much football in recent weeks and throwing them in from the start would be a calculated gamble given there are still a host of league games to be played and both would undoubtedly be key in any potential promotion push.

But if both come through training in good shape this week, then it would be little surprise to see them start at Wembley.

There is, of course, the option of Oliver Younger too. The 21-year-old showed he can deal with the rigours of senior football during his first league start against Rochdale last weekend and is likely to travel to Wembley with the squad – even if he isn’t involved.

THE CENTRE OF MIDFIELD

Much of what Johnson does in this area will be dictated by his selections at the back.

Carl Winchester has grown into the side since his January arrival but is ineligible for this fixture.

That means Josh Scowen is likely to start in the middle of the park – but who partners him remains unclear.

Both Max Power and O’Nien are likely candidates but could at least one of the duo is likely to be needed in the backline.

Unless Conor McLaughlin can make a timely return to action, either Power or O’Nien will likely have to be deployed as a right-sided defender given Sunderland’s lack of depth in that area.

That would free-up the other to play in the centre of midfield, but Johnson could also have the option of Grant Leadbitter.

Speaking about the midfielder last week, the head coach said his shoulder injury was a ‘manageable situation’.

"With the right strapping and the right conditions, it can be managed,” explained Johnson.

“There is a risk that it might pop out again, but I think Grant is probably willing to take that risk. Maybe not necessarily over the short term, but over the medium term as he gets stronger and starts to feel a bit more comfortable.”

Leadbitter was due to train on Wednesday and could yet find himself in contention for Wembley.

Another option is Dan Neil, who has enjoyed plenty of game-time in this competition this season.

A boyhood Sunderland fan, you know this is the kind of fixture he would relish being involved in.

THE FORWARD AREAS

Charlie Wyke, Aiden McGeady and Jordan Jones are likely to have nailed-down starting spots given their performances in recent weeks and, in the case of the latter of the three, his showing at Portsmouth.

But Aiden O’Brien’s knock on Tuesday night could open the door for one of Sunderland’s other attacking talents.

Ross Stewart was due to train this week but the visit to Wembley could come too soon for the striker as he eyes a debut.

Lynden Gooch’s return at Portsmouth was a welcome boost in the forward areas and the American could be a natural replacement for O’Brien if he is injured.

Johnson has previously spoke of how he can see Gooch playing as a false forward, and the role alongside Wyke could allow him to do just that.

And then there is Chris Maguire.

We know that the experienced Scot can produce moments of magic in games of this nature, but his impact in recent weeks has been limited to appearances from the bench.

He could be set for that role again at Wembley, and his quality could prove key in the latter stages if the game is perched on a knife-edge.