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Hot Takes: The rot has been stopped, but did we see enough from Sunderland at Wimbledon?

Time is running short as we bid to turn things around - but at least Alex Neil managed to stop the rot with his first game in charge, identifying many key issues he needs to fix as the season draws on.

Even by the standards of recent seasons, the past fourteen days have represented as spectacular an implosion as you could ever see.

Hammered at Bolton, defeated by Doncaster and Cheltenham, and all of this accompanied by a botched managerial search, a stark lack of communication from the club, and simmering fan unrest at the direction in which the club is currently heading.

Perhaps in that sense this draw wasn’t an unmitigated disaster, but in the context of a season that is currently heading for a potentially sour conclusion, nor was it something to celebrate either.

The positives?

We didn’t lose the game, despite falling behind early; Jay Matete turned in another impressive performance that was full of aggression and midfield bite; Alex Pritchard is the only player who appears to be unaffected by the startling downturn in form that has enveloped many of his teammates, and the on-loan Jack Clarke looks like a very exciting prospect.

Bolton Wanderers v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by James Gill - Danehouse/Getty Images

Other than that, however, it really becomes an exercise in straw-clutching to glean any real upsides from another game that Sunderland of three or four months ago would probably have won reasonably comfortably.

The big problem is that Sunderland AFC of February 2022 is barely a shadow of Sunderland AFC of autumn 2021, where Dan Neil could do no wrong, Ross Stewart was the league’s most dynamic striker, and Callum Doyle’s rise seemed unstoppable.

The downturn in form - sparked, to my mind, by the 3-3 draw away to Wycombe - has been stark, rapid, and worrying.

Alex Neil might well prove to be a capable manager with time, but this team needs an injection of something major over the final fourteen games. Automatic promotion, barring a miracle, is now surely gone, and even the playoffs are not a certainty.

This was not an attractive game to watch. In fact, for the majority, it was a grind, with our lack of confidence glaringly apparent and the home side eager to capitalise. In the early stages, we did see plenty of the ball and were able to deliver some promising crosses, not least from the impressive Trai Hume, but that was about as good as it got.

Throughout the first half, there was an air of unease and hesitancy among the players, which is understandable, and we looked afraid to try and play the sort of positive, enterprising football that was our hallmark during the early months of the season.

These players should not be immune from criticism because the expectations are clear and they have to accept that, but it was not a pleasant experience to watch a young, talented prospect like Dennis Cirkin drift through the game, looking utterly lost and unsure as to how to find some form.

Bolton Wanderers v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by James Gill - Danehouse/Getty Images

Alex Neil might have come across as an abrasive, no-nonsense manager in his first interview, but it feels like some serious guidance is required to help these lads through this period.

Yes, he will doubtless be a hard taskmaster, because something needs to be done to spark the squad back into life, but nor will it be as simple as delivering a tongue-lashing, either.

Wimbledon’s opening goal typified the rut in which we currently find ourselves.

As he jostled for position in the box the ball struck Callum Doyle’s arm at point-blank range, when he was in no position to avoid it, and the referee duly awarded the home team the penalty, which was dispatched by Luke McCormick. It was another setback during a period where we were just starting to grow into the game.

The fact that Sunderland’s only shot on target led to our goal, albeit through another inch-perfect free kick from Pritchard that pulled us level just before half time, told its own story. We have an abundance of creative, skilful players, but the supply lines are not particularly well-connected at the moment, and Stewart himself is going through a real barren spell.

His game was summed up when he had a chance to shoot with his left foot but he dithered, and Wimbledon were able to clear. A confident Stewart would doubtless have taken it on his left and buried it, but the big Scot is clearly running on empty at the moment.

Sunderland v Sheffield Wednesday - Sky Bet League One Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The remainder of the second half fizzled out without anything to shout about. Matete continued to attempt to drive us forward with an all-action display, and Jermaine Defoe entered the fray with thirty minutes left, getting vital match fitness in the tank, albeit without scoring.

Even a late red card for McCormick couldn’t give Sunderland the impetus they needed to snatch a victory, and in the end, a draw was the fairest outcome.

With no game until Saturday, Neil can at least spend some time on the training ground, getting to know the players, trying to help them rediscover some confidence, and implementing his own preferred style of play.

The rot has at least been stopped, and it does give him something to build on, but that was a small mercy in the midst of the team’s current slump, and time is running short as we bid to turn things around.

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