Tony Mowbray is backing Sunderland’s attacking flair to win the day as the Black Cats face one of the best defences in the Championship in the play-off semi-final. Sunderland secured sixth place and a play-off spot on the final day of the season this week, earning them them the right to take on Luton Town, who finished third, over two legs for a place in the Wembley final.
Only champions Burnley conceded fewer goals than Luton over the course of the season, with Rob Edwards’ Hatters conceding 39 times – the same number as Sheffield United, who finished second – compared to Vincent Kompany’s Clarets’ 35. Luton also kept 20 clean sheets in their 46 games, the same number as Coventry City who finished fifth in the table, while Burnley led the way with 21.
But, while Sunderland have been without star striker Ross Stewart for almost three-quarters of the season due to injury and the club has had to operate without a centre-forward at all for around half the campaign, attacking flair players such as on-loan Manchester United forward Amad, Jack Clarke, Patrick Roberts, and Alex Pritchard, helped the Black Cats score 68 league goals – a tally bettered only by Burnley (87), Middlesbrough (84), and Sheffield United (73). Not only that, but they have also scored in all-but one of their last 30 games in all competitions.
“I say it without any embarrassment to the team: ‘Get the ball to Pat [Roberts], get the ball to Amad. Give them the ball,’ said Mowbray, ahead of Saturday’s first leg against Luton at the Stadium of Light. “It’s not because they’re better, it’s because that’s what they do.
“They can’t win headers or tackles like you do, they aren’t going to bring that organisation – but give them the ball. What they can do with the ball … you see it every day in training.
“The biggest challenge is to make them play serious football, because sometimes it’s almost like being in the playground. It’s about having that focus, because if you have too many touches, that guy from the opposition is going to kick you.
“That’s the balance for us, when you can get them in that focus and they are looking to really damage the opposition, they are seriously talented footballers.”
Mowbray took over on Wearside at the end of August and inherited a talented squad, but he has integrated a clutch of youngsters into the team and found a way to overcome the challenges posed by a series of long-term injuries, and guided Sunderland into the play-offs in their first season back in the Championship following promotion from League One last term. Amad, Pritchard, and Clarke were on target in a 3-0 win at Preston on the last day and that, in conjunction with Blackburn’s 4-3 win at Millwall, was enough to send Sunderland into the play-offs.
Mowbray said: “I knew about the quality in the team and that’s why I was happy to come here. I knew all about Patrick before I came here, I’d managed against him and studied the Celtic side he played in.
“He’s a genius with the ball, Premier League talent on the ball. And we’ve been fortunate that Amad has hit an amazing run.
“We haven’t taught him anything, but how he has incorporated himself into the group and what we do on the pitch has been amazing. He scored a goal out of nothing there [at Preston] and it’s not the first time.
“And I have to mention Jack Clarke, because I spent the first 45 minutes screaming at him to get in the right position and yet when he’s one-vs-one, cutting into the box …”
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