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Sunderland v Millwall - Sky Bet Championship

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Talking Points: Formation curiosities, set piece struggles – and three massive points!

It was an excellent result yesterday – but in the first half particularly, things were far from perfect...

Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Team selection and approach raises eyebrows

Of course, it’s been two weeks since our game at Birmingham, and Tony Mowbray has had a couple of weeks with the players, but I was a little surprised at Gooch and Alese, in particular, getting back into the team straight away.

Both have done well this season, but with the likes of Hume, Huggins and Cirkin to choose from too, I had imagined we’d have been a little more consistent.

Of a far greater surprise, however, was that we seemed to play with a lopsided back three in the first 45 – with Gooch and Clarke as wing backs. Why? I didn’t see anything from Millwall that would have been particularly stunted by us lining up like that, and in reality, it actually caused us a load of problems as the players looked really uncomfortable.

Mowbray traditionally prefers four at the back, we’ve looked fine with it for the majority of the season, so why change? Pritchard struggled to get into the game, and Amad wasn’t able to get into the positions he can create danger as Gooch was pushing up and occupying them.

We weren’t great in the first half at all – we looked a mess, disjointed and played into Millwall’s hands. Fortunately, we somehow got away with it. Only Millwall will know how!

Sunderland v Millwall - Sky Bet Championship
A number of players struggled to get into the game in the first half
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

A classic game of two halves

Second half, however, was a completely different story.

We simplified the formation, and you could see the players felt a lot more comfortable. Gooch played deeper game Amad more space – Pritchard, too, and we ended up controlling the second half.

It wasn’t all one-way traffic – Millwall had some chances, particularly the header that was cleared from the line by Dan Neil – but we were so, so much better and ultimately deserved the win. It’s a massive three points, and it’s nice to continue our good run of form.

Sunderland v Millwall - Sky Bet Championship
Gooch played deeper in the second half – and to good effect, too
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Set piece woes continue

I’d hoped a couple of weeks of training would have resulted in a bit of improvement in our set pieces. But no. They were awful again.

The main culprit was Alex Pritchard – his corners and free kicks caused us more problems than Millwall, and we need to try something different, and very very soon.

Tony Mowbray talked after the game that more than 60% of Millwall’s goals come from set pieces – we’ve scored the sum total of zero.

It’s frustrating – and it’s something we need to improve if we have aspirations of finishing top half this season.

Amad was stood with Pritchard for every set piece – maybe it’s time for the loanee to take charge.

Sunderland v Millwall - Sky Bet Championship
Pritchard was excellent in the second half before his substitution, but his set pieces were poor
Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Strong spine – but Neil struggled to get into the game

Danny Batth has been excellent all season and yesterday was class again – his leadership is superb and he exemplified everything the team is about.

He got a bust lip from a loose elbow early on but still threw himself at everything, heading away ball after ball from Millwall’s dangerous set pieces.

Our spine is looking strong – Patterson, bar his error in the first half, did well once more, while Evans knitted things together and Simms showed just what we’ve been missing. He was excellent, particularly second half, and you can see he’s now fully fit.

He got the goal his performance deserved and, while Stewart will hopefully back for our next game, it’s not guaranteed he gets back into the team after that performance.

One player I thought struggled to make an impact yesterday, however, was Dan Neil.

Yes, he made a vital contribution with his headed goalline clearance in the second half, but all too often he was on the periphery of the game.

I spoke on the podcast after Birmingham about Neil – he’s clearly talented, but at this stage of his career he needs to be hitting a level of consistency, and we need to start seeing more from him.

He doesn’t get on the ball enough for me and, with Jay Matete, Abdullah Ba and Eduoard Michut breathing down his neck, he’s going to need to perform at a higher level than we’re currently seeing if he’s going to keep his place in the team.

Sunderland v Millwall - Sky Bet Championship
Is Dan Neil’s place in the team under threat?
Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Excellent Amad continues to impress

First half, Amad wasn’t helped by our formation.

Second half, we saw him at his best.

Really, the lesson here is we need to build the team around him as he’s capable of creating and scoring almost at will. His goal was excellent too, in a completely different way from his Birmingham strike.

A few weeks ago, he probably wouldn’t have been in that position to tap the ball home. Yesterday he was – and that speaks volumes for his determination and desire to improve.

He did the dirty side of the game well too, he chased back, tackled and did that really effectively.

There’s been talk of Manchester United recalling him in January – I can see why – but they’d be far better letting him stay put. He’s guaranteed to play here and most importantly, he’s developing and getting better every week.

He’s not going to get the same exposure this season at Old Trafford, and if he stays here for the rest of the season, he’ll return to Manchester a far, far better player than he left.


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