Everton host Sunderland on Saturday in the Premier League, and we spoke to our fellow SB Nation blog Roker Report on what the Black Cats have been up to this season. Our thanks to Rory for taking the time to chat with us.
RBM - Considering the number of former Evertonians David Moyes has added to the team -- is that representative of the team's overall activity, or just the part that's gotten the most attention?
RR - It certainly was representative in January, since the three senior players we brought in were all ex-Toffees! As well as Darron Gibson, Bryan Oviedo & Joleon Lescott, we signed Victor Anichebe & Steven Pienaar in the summer and Moyes also looked at Manchester United players, bringing Adnan Januzaj, Paddy McNair & Donald Love to the club. So it's fair to say that Moyes generally goes for players he knows he can trust.
The best Moyes signing however, has been a one out of nowhere - the deadline day acquisition of Didier Ndong. Often playing deep in the midfield, Ndong is a bit similar to Idrissa Gueye, with heaps of energy, great tackling and tidy, if a little cautious, passing. He's still far from the finished article but, at only 22 years old, Ndong looks a very promising prospect.
RBM - How does the Sunderland youth setup look? Are there any youngsters who have been training with the senior squad or part of the matchday lineup? Any players you'd tip to break through in the next couple of seasons?
RR - The youngster who has made a huge breakthrough this campaign is, of course, Jordan Pickford. He was used sparingly by Sam Allardyce in the second half of last season but was given a chance by David Moyes after Vito Mannone suffered an elbow injury in August. To say Pickford took has chance wouldn't do justice just how vital he's been, until he himself succumbed to injury, in our Boxing Day game trip to Manchester United. He excels in all the obvious areas such as shot stopping, commanding his box and superb positioning, but his distribution is something else. I'm really glad that he'll be fully fit soon (he has a chance of starting on Saturday) as he's a total match winner and will probably go on to be England's Number 1.
Aside from Pickford, our aforementioned horrendous injury record has given a lot of youngsters the opportunity to make the subs bench. It's reported that Moyes doesn't particularly rate many of the players who still make up our Under 23's side though, so it's unlikely any more will make such a break through this season. George Honeyman has made one league start and one sub appearance but seems to have fallen out of favour since then and with Darron Gibson arriving and Jan Kirchhoff back from injury soon, it could be a while until he's seen again.
RBM - What is Moyes' default formation this season, and especially after the transfer window? Does he change to a more defensive-minded setup when playing away from home?
RR - There's been two systems that have given Sunderland some success this season, neither of which really changed whether we were home or away. The first, was a 4-3-3, built around Victor Anichebe. With Anichebe holding up the ball and dragging defenders out of position, it gave Jermain Defoe extra space and the chance to pick up the ball in deeper areas, since he wasn't just having to play off the shoulder of the centre half. We also had the pace and pressing of Duncan Watmore in there too, so we had a decent balance to play counter attacking football. It brought wins against AFC Bournemouth, Leicester City , Hull City and (with a slight tweak) Watford. Injuries to Anichebe & Watmore quickly derailed that, unfortunately.
Now, Moyes has switched to a 3-5-1-1 which saw us earn a point against Spurs and romp to a 4-0 win away to Crystal Palace. Adnan Januzaj has taken the freedom of the number 10 role and seems to have a good relationship with Defoe, giving us a decent attacking threat, while the full backs provide width and the central midfield generally work their arses off. It was no surprise that we looked totally at sea, when Moyes changed the system at half time, in the crushing defeat to Southampton
I've often been critical of Moyes but he deserves huge credit for finding two systems that seem to suit our side, with a ridiculous amount of injuries.
RBM - Did Sunderland travel during the two-week break for a break? Where did they go, and what did they do while there?
RR - The squad had a bizarrely controversial trip to New York, during the break. Apparently Moyes used this to some degree of success while in charge of Everton, so hopefully it has decent results for us too!
The lads were out running through Central Park, working out in the gym, as well as having some bonding time to take in the sights of the Empire State. For some reason, a few of our fans used it as an opportunity to berate the club because they weren't doing laps of Seaburn Beach or working down the mines. I'm sure they wouldn't have been as outraged, had Moyes taken the players to Dubai or somewhere a bit less left-field but anything to get the team out of their usual bubble/routine is good in my opinion. Hopefully it's worked wonders for squad morale and got a stronger bond going throughout the side.
RBM - How is young Bradley Lowery doing? As you might know, Everton and its fans have taken quite the liking to the boy. What's the latest on the lad, and will he be travelling to Goodison Park this weekend?
RR - There's been some sad news this week, which was detailed in the Lowery family's Facebook post. We'll never give up hope though and Bradley is a tough lad, so hopefully he'll beat this awful illness.
It's unlikely he'll be making the journey to Goodison this weekend but I know all Sunderland fans will always remember everything Everton (and the wider football community) have done for him.
RBM - What does Sunderland's injury situation look like for this weekend? Who are you expecting to play some part in the game at Everton? How about a score prediction?
RR - In terms of long term lay offs, it looks like Jordan Pickford will be the only one who returns at the weekend. Jan Kirchhoff & Lee Cattermole are getting closer to a return but this one will probably come a bit too soon for them. There may be a Merseyside return for Jack Rodwell though, after a hamstring problem forced him off in the win at Selhurst Park.
My guess at the starting line up would be something along the lines of - Pickford; Jones, Kone, O'Shea, Denayer, Oviedo; Ndong, Larsson, Rodwell; Januzaj; Defoe.
I can't see us winning or keeping a clean sheet, especially with your attacking options, so the best I realistically predict is a 1-1 draw. I'm not expecting much though and if we come away with a point, I'll be delighted.