It is often frowned upon to consider changing your goalkeeper during the season - unless of course there is an injury. The desire for a settled back four and goalkeeper usually overrules any contemplations in that area, but has summer signing, Lee Burge, given Jack Ross a headache when deciding who to give the gloves to going forward?
Throughout the summer the general consensus was of all the areas on the pitch where Sunderland did need strengthening, in goal was not one of them. Jon McLaughlin’s debut season on Wearside was one of the stand outs in last years failed promotion bid as he upheld a string of excellent performances, producing a number of key saves in several matches; of the 85 points amassed it’s fair to say McLaughlin was responsible for a healthy chunk of them.
However, the summer stand-off between the Scotland international and the club in failing to agree a new contract has left a little bit of a sour taste in the mouth. It is an issue which appears to have impacted McLaughlin’s early season form too with some questionable involvement in a selection of the goals conceded so far.
While McLaughlin’s form is not a massive problem, there are one or two trepidations creeping in – Saturday's goal for MK Dons being a resounding example of a player not enjoying the same rich form as last season as he got lost in no man’s land from a crossfield ball. And in the background summer acquisition, Burge, is beginning to prove some of his doubters wrong with a pair of excellent displays in the Carabao Cup, last week’s win against Sheffield United at Bramall Lane a particularly pleasing performance.
When Burge was recruited, as obvious cover to McLaughlin, the immediate thought of many supporters will have been to return to the chaos of that 4-5 defeat to Coventry City at the Stadium of Light in April where he didn’t exactly cover himself in glory for all four of the Sunderland goals. Throw in a selection of comments from Sky Blues fans themselves of the signing and it didn’t appear to be anything other than a so called experienced head in the back-up position to McLaughlin following Max Strjek’s departure to Eastleigh.
But with Burge impressing during his cameos and McLaughlin labouring somewhat – albeit in front of an unsettled back four – there may be some cause for deliberation for Ross and his staff in the near future should each goalkeeper continue in their current vein of form.
It is a position Sunderland have become quite accustomed to being more than adequate in over recent history, and although his distribution leaves a lot to be desired, in McLaughlin Sunderland have another very competent goalkeeper following the likes of Craig Gordon, Simon Mignolet, Costel Pantilimon, Vito Mannone and Jordan Pickford over the last decade – the less said about 2017-18’s trio the better. As seen last season, McLaughlin is a solid number one, a good shot stopper and a goalkeeper who generally commands his area well. However he is also one whose head may, or may not be, entirely committed to the cause as the uncertainties as to where his future lies beyond this season continue to ramble on in the background. Should Sunderland fail to earn promotion again this season then you would suspect McLaughlin would see his future elsewhere, at a higher level.
With that in mind, should Ross start considering the alternative in this situation? In Burge there is a goalkeeper who has a guaranteed contract and a desire, you feel, to succeed at a club like Sunderland. Many players at this level would regard Sunderland as an opportunity to progress to the Championship at least and will thrive under the opportunity. He has demonstrated in his League Cup outings he is comfortable between the sticks, despite a new centre back pairing in front of him, he possesses more than his own fair share of saves locked away in the top drawer, his distribution appears more complete than McLaughlin’s and most importantly he has kept the only clean sheet of the season so far. At what point does Burge’s challenge to the gloves become a very potent one? Did Ross miss an opportunity and make a mistake in allowing the Burton Albion game to be postponed in McLaughlin’s absence with Burge sitting in the background?
This is not to suggest Ross should ostracise McLaughlin from the first team, but there is clearly an underlying issue pecking away behind the scenes – most likely in the form of his contract. Come January, McLaughlin will be free to talk to interested parties about a potentially free transfer away from the club. Is that something Sunderland need hanging over them heading into the second half of the season in such a key area of the field?
In an ideal world, the contract will be offered to McLaughlin, he will sign it and recapture last season’s commanding form where misjudging crosses and being beaten at the near post will become a thing of early season rustiness and off-field demons. But the longer it goes on, and the more these little mistakes contribute to the goals against column then the more Burge has a right to knock on the manager’s door.