TOM FLANAGAN has hailed the current Sunderland side as ‘the best he has played in’, and is confident the Black Cats will stick to their footballing principles no matter what is thrown at them this season.

Sunderland head to Crewe Alexandra this evening looking to build on Saturday’s 2-1 win at Gillingham which kept them within a point of top spot in League One.

Lee Johnson’s side had to dig deep at the Priestfield Stadium, particularly when they were reduced to ten men following the dismissal of Elliot Embleton, but despite their opponents’ robust physical approach, they continued to try to get the ball down and play.

They were rewarded with another crucial away win, and with Lee Johnson adamant he wants his players to stick to the tactical blueprint he is trying to implement, Flanagan is confident he and his team-mates will not be knocked off their stride.

“I think everyone is just really, really enjoying playing this style of football,” said the centre-half. “I know I certainly am.

“This is the best team I’ve played in for a long, long time. I am really, really enjoying my football. We’ve got a real good mix, and it’s just a really good style. And I think all the boys like that, so I don’t think we’ll go away from that.

“We have good, good players, who can win a game for us. We trust in the things we’re being told to do, and hopefully they will come to fruition.”

Saturday’s victory enabled Sunderland to draw a line under the four-goal thrashing at Portsmouth that preceded the international break, with Flanagan hoping it will also mark the start of a new unbeaten run.

The Black Cats had only lost one of their opening nine matches before their slip-up at Fratton Park, and with at least one game in hand on all of the teams in the top half of the table bar Wigan Athletic, they remain extremely well placed ahead of tonight’s trip to Gresty Road.

“Hopefully, this is the start of another good run as we were on a good run (before Portsmouth),” he said. “We’ll have blips during the season, but hopefully the blip will be a draw and not a loss.

“It will probably be a lot more football-based against Crewe. We will have to earn the right to play with our football, but like I said, we trust our way of playing and we enjoy it.”

With Embleton having been hit with a three-game suspension, Johnson will be forced into at least one change for this evening’s game.

Lynden Gooch and Aiden McGeady both missed Saturday’s victory, but the pair have a chance of being involved tonight, with the former having been regarded as closest to a return at the weekend.

Leon Dajaku and Frederik Alves should not be out for too much longer either, although Nathan Broadhead, Corry Evans and Niall Huggins are nursing longer-term complaints.

Like Flanagan, Johnson expects this evening’s game to be markedly different to Saturday’s, with Crewe, who are sitting in 23rd position in the table after their weekend defeat at Fleetwood, expected to represent a much less physical proposition than Gillingham.

“It’s a different game completely, but it’s still a big challenge,” said Johnson. “We know the way Crewe play. They’re renowned for producing young players. They have got a mix this year of young and old and we’ve got to be at it. It’s as simple as that.”

Sunderland (probable, 4-2-3-1): Hoffman; Winchester, Flanagan, Doyle, Cirkin; O’Nien, Neil; Gooch, Pritchard, O’Brien; Stewart.