Sunderland AFC v Accrington Stanley Preview: The Need For Play-Off Form

Nothing says we aren’t Premier League anymore like hosting Accrington Stanley for the third successive season. Jim Reay preview’s today’s tussle.

The play-offs it is, then. Barring a collapse of epic proportions from Peterborough, and a flawless run-in from ourselves, we’re going to have to do this the Wembley way.

The gap to second is seven points, with four games left each. Posh’s run in looks tougher than ours – away to Charlton, followed by Doncaster twice with Lincoln sandwiched in between – but even an optimist like me is now struggling to file automatic promotion anywhere other than ‘extremely unlikely’.

The argument of “Bottled it” versus “With the lack of margin for error afforded to us by a poor first half of the season, it was too much in the end” is for another day (I’m in the latter camp, by the way). Regardless, the last couple of weeks have certainly brought us back down to earth with a bump.

A good run of form going into a play-off campaign is pretty much mandatory for success. You rarely see a side who goes into them on a poor run get promoted. Case in point: Sunderland in the 2018/19 season.

That makes Saturday’s game at home to Accrington just as vital as it would be if we still had a realistic chance of automatics. We were much improved in the main on Tuesday and arrested the run of defeats before it became any more damaging.

Given Hull’s table-topping position it would be hard to be unhappy with a draw under normal circumstances. But to give up a leading position twice in a game of that magnitude, especially in the manner we did both times, is really fucking annoying. Moreover, our poor results leading up to it made a win the only desirable outcome.

We looked a lot more composed in midfield, and I really do think we need to play with three in there, as we control games so much better, and look more dangerous in attack. Despite missing Aidan McGeady through a foot injury, we still carried a lot of threat. Jones and Gooch in particular were very lively, and combined well for the first goal.

Defensively though, we were our own worst enemy. Bailey Wright continued his very rusty return from a long spell out; he just doesn’t seem on the same wavelength as the rest of the back four, and it was evident with the amount of space afforded to Josh Magennis for both of Hull’s goals.

That wasn’t the main issue though. The performance of Callum McFadzean was simply nowhere near where it needs to be – again. It’s becoming obvious that week in, week out, he’s targeted as our weakness. Most sides seem to attack down our left twice as much as elsewhere.

Up against one of the league’s most potent attacking threats in Malik Wilks, it was only going to end one way. It seems the only person who didn’t see this until it was too late was Lee Johnson himself.

Overall though, there were enough positives on Tuesday for me to take into the Accrington game. I really don’t think we need to risk McGeady either, given we looked potent enough against a much stronger defence on Tuesday than we’re likely to face today.

We should play a three-man midfield containing Leadbitter and Winchester – they seem to work really well together and both possess the technique and vision to control the space. In addition, Winchester enjoys late runs into the box which will result in a goal sooner or later. The other spot will most likely go to Scowen for his energy and harrying. I’m aware he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but he works a lot better in this system than in a two.

We have to make a change at left-back too. There’s good news in that Jake Vokins is close to a return, and with Denver Hume nearing match-fitness there should, in the nicest possible way, be no reason to play McFadzean.

As outlined above, this is an important game in more ways than one, and given that Accrington are safe in mid-table obscurity there really isn’t much of an excuse not to come away with the three points.

We’ve arrested the slide, now we need to start climbing again. You can never be in form too good for a play-off final. The work towards that starts now.

Jim Reay