They say you should never change a winning team, but Steve Bruce will be welcoming back a few crucial players over the coming weeks – giving him a positive selection headache ahead of the festive period.
Here’s a look at some of the big dilemmas he looks set to face over the next fortnight:
Star duo back, but who does Bruce drop in defence?
It’s been confirmed that Jamaal Lascelles will be out until 2020 after suffering a knee ligament injury in the win over Bournemouth, however both Fabian Schar and Florian Lejeune are in contention ahead of next Monday’s trip to Aston Villa.
With that in mind, Steve Bruce could have FIVE very capable centre-backs to pick from (providing Clark’s injury is minor) – but there’s only three spaces up for grabs.
You could argue that Federico Fernandez and Ciaran Clark are undroppable at present after key goals, assists and strong defensive displays in our last three, yet the returning Schar and Lejeune are arguably two of our best players when fit, while Dummett is one of our most reliable performers and was outstanding at times earlier this season.
Schar seems nailed on to start on the right-side of a back three when fit and Fernandez could be the most natural Lascelles replacement in the centre of defence, but that then leaves Lejeune, Clark and Dummett fighting for that left-sided centre-back slot.
Lejeune has that calmness and quality on the ball, but will Bruce really drop Clark (if fit) or continue to leave Dummett out of the side?
Either way, it’s great to see us have so many brilliant options at the back – something we’ve not been able to say for a long time.
Willems too good to be dropped when Ritchie returns?
Steve Bruce is hoping to have Matt Ritchie back at the end of the month according to the Chronicle, but it’s hard to know where he fits into this side when Jetro Willems has looked so good at left wing-back.
The Dutchman doesn’t bring quite the same level of energy, leadership and defensive drive as the former Bournemouth winger, however his quality on the ball, his creativity and threat in the final third and link up play with Allan Saint-Maximin has been outstanding at times.
It would be wrong to drop Willems for me – he’s played that left wing-back role superbly and is contributing at both ends of the pitch – but I also don’t see Ritchie being left on the bench.
It’s like a game of online slots trying to guess where both fit into our side when fit, but it’s a brilliant problem to have for Bruce.
Shelvey’s newfound form gives Bruce midfield dilemma
When Shelvey was out of sorts and Matty Longstaff was out of the first-team picture, a midfield partnership of Isaac Hayden and Sean Longstaff seemed like Bruce’s go-to option when playing two in the middle.
Sean Longstaff will sit out the final game of a three-game ban at Villa Park next Monday, meaning Shelvey and Hayden look all set to start, but both Longstaff brothers have burst onto the scene and will be hoping for regular first-team minutes – especially if they’re to sign new deals at the club.
For me, it’s all down to what Jonjo Shelvey turns up over the next few weeks. Should he continue to work hard, be less wasteful (and more creative) on the ball and carry out his defensive responsibilities then he’s the sort of player you’d expect Bruce to start every week alongside Hayden – a player who’s one of the first names on the team sheet when fit given our lack of tackling midfielders.
That said, Sean Longstaff is another player we couldn’t leave out should he start to show the form that saw him burst onto the scene last season and get linked with a big money move to Man Utd.
For me, Hayden starts, but his partner will come down to Shelvey’s ability to continue working hard OFF the ball and Sean Longstaff’s ability to rediscover the composure he showed ON the ball earlier this year.
As for Matty Longstaff, he’s another capable option who has proven to Steve Bruce what he’s capable of, but with his brother, Hayden and Shelvey all battling for two starting slots at present, I think Matty could head out on loan in January should we sign another midfielder in the new year.