"They're a dangerous side going forward" - The inside track on Doncaster Rovers' next opponents Sunderland

Alex Pritchard celebrates scoring for Sunderland at Shrewsbury.Alex Pritchard celebrates scoring for Sunderland at Shrewsbury.
Alex Pritchard celebrates scoring for Sunderland at Shrewsbury.
Doncaster Rovers face a tough test on Monday against an in-form Sunderland side eager to keep pace with the top two.

The Black Cats have twice fallen short in the League One play-offs since relegation from the Championship in 2018 - and the Wearside faithful expect promotion this season.

We caught up with Sunderland AFC writer Phil Smith, of the Sunderland Echo, to get the lowdown on Rovers’ next opponents.

How do you assess Sunderland's start to the season?

Broadly speaking, pretty good.

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Sunderland aren't too far off the two points-per-game marker that generally delivers automatic promotion come the end of the season.

Given that they overhauled the squad in the summer and brought the average age down considerably, it's been a solid start.

The concern is that when they have lost, it has often been quite heavily and at times their experience/lack of physicality has been exposed.

They are a very good footballing side, though, and are now seven unbeaten in the league.

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It's a strong platform that they can hopefully now kick on from.

How confident are you that Sunderland can win promotion from League One at the fourth time of asking?

I think this is the most consistently dangerous side going forward since Sunderland dropped into the fourth tier, which definitely bodes well in terms of their promotion prospects.

Nathan Broadhead's recent injury is a massive blow, though, as he'd become a key part of the way they play.

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So the January window is going to be crucial in terms of those top-two hopes, particularly as defensively there are a few deficiencies in the squad that clearly need addressing.

For one, the club doesn't have a senior, orthodox right back.

What system and style of play does Lee Johnson favour and have there been any changes this season?

Generally speaking Johnson prefers a 4-2-3-1 system but full back options have been severely limited of late due to injury.

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That means he's shifted ever so slightly to a more lopsided version of the system, which means it can often look like a back five out of possession.

The wing backs are encouraged to press high and quickly break on the counter, with the centre backs shuffling round depending on who goes forward.

It's worked relatively well but with some full backs returning to fitness, the side might have a more familiar look by the time of the Doncaster game, particularly as Broadhead's injury means Ross Stewart will likely lead the line on his own.

Who are the players to watch?

Dan Neil has the joint-most assists in the division this season, and the most from open play.

He's a superb passer of the ball and a real threat.

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In front of him, Alex Pritchard is beginning to really show his quality. Covid and injuries meant he had a slow start to his Wearside career but he is in fine form at the moment.

Give those players time and space on the ball, and they will hurt you.