Sunderland’s trip to Bolton this weekend may seem like an easy opportunity to grab three points, but the Black Cats will have to stifle a former player for that to be the case.
While Keith Hill’s side sit bottom of League One with just one goal scored and a whopping 23 conceded, they grabbed a draw last time out against Oxford United, and it’s no surprise their recent improvement has coincided with the return of Liam Bridcutt.
Indeed, the Wanderers are an extremely young side with little experience at the top level, but Bridcutt, who has two Scotland caps and 30 Premier League showings to his name, was immediately handed the armband when he came back into the side, and the stats show exactly how crucial he is.
The 30 year-old of course spent two years on Wearside, and in his two appearances so far this campaign, he is averaging 83 touches and 44 accurate passes per game, completing those passes at a rate of 73%, per Sofascore.
That may not seem all that great, but he has also provided one big chance in his limited time on the pitch and completed 6.5 long balls per game, suggesting his accuracy is low due to the difficulty of the passes he attempts.
On the defensive side of things, he is the lone shield in Hill’s 4-1-4-1 formation, and plays that role perfectly with a whopping 6 tackles, 2.5 interceptions and 3 clearances per game. He is also able to weave his way out of tight situations once he wins the ball back, currently completing 2 dribbles each game.
So, not only is Bridcutt the man tasked with shielding a leaky defence, he is also the player trusted to spray the ball around, string things together in the middle and launch long balls in behind the opponent’s full-backs – an area of the pitch Sunderland have struggled.
Jack Ross should absolutely have one his more energetic midfielders, like George Dobson or Lynden Gooch, focus on hassling and pressuring the Scotland international out of the game.
If the Black Cats can force Bridcutt into mistakes, stifle his attacking influence and nick the ball off him high up the pitch, thus also limiting his defensive impact, then it could well be the easy three points many fans will be hoping for.
However, if they allow the former Brighton and Leeds star to simply sit in front of his back-line and pick his passes, then that full-back weakness that has plagued Ross throughout his Black Cats reign could rear its ugly head thanks to his excellent long passing.
Beat Bridcutt, beat Bolton, it really may be that simple.