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Alex Neil has his work cut out to rebalance this Sunderland squad

Alex Neil quickly delivered a damning indictment on the way Sunderland have been coached this season - he now has to balance youth and experience to somehow create a winning formula.

“You can’t win anything with kids” is a statement that will haunt Alan Hansen, but it is also likely to be costing Alex Neil a fair amount of sleep. His after-match interview following the lacklustre draw last Saturday at Plough Lane spoke volumes.

He had 40 minutes with the team on the training ground before they headed to London for the Wimbledon game, and he had then patrolled the dugout for the 90 minutes.

While Neil described the performance as the team’s “lowest ebb”, he added the week ahead would see him and the coaching team trying to remedy the issues he had identified.

However, he was clear that the squad remains woefully imbalanced when it comes to youth and experience. He explained we have a squad where the young players are “dead on their feet” while many of the experienced heads have barely seen a football pitch in anger this season.

Fans have been quick to notice the fall-off in performance by the likes of Doyle and Stewart, but these are inexperienced players who are having to battle seasoned professionals, often twice a week, with little ability for any respite.

It is not just the physical toll of two matches a week that is impacting many of our less experienced players. The mental sharpness which is so vital in the professional game has also started to wane.

All to often we have heard coaches says that players have “switched off” at a vital moment leading to a mistake. Mental exhaustion is as dangerous to player as physical exhaustion, but you cannot expect players to perform week in week out and not see a reaction.

The club’s strategy to buy young players who can be developed and to promote from the academy looked good in August and September. However, as the games mounted up it has become apparent that they are learning a harsh lesson in the need to pace themselves.

The question has to be asked. These young players that Alex Neil says are dead on their feet did not simply tire during 40 minutes of training on Friday or the 90 minutes on Saturday?

The coaching staff must have seen the signs of fatigue at the Academy day in day out but there does not seem to have been any efforts to ease the physical and mental burden on the youngsters. It is here where inexperience and youth has worked against the players.

The sport is littered with experienced pros who have in effect undertaken their own training regimes to manage injuries or avoid burnout, but they know what a season demands. That lack of experience has left the current squad with young talented players who, if their new head coach is to be believed, can barely put one foot in front of another.

Sunderland v Doncaster Rovers - Sky Bet League One - Stadium of Light Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

The fact that the majority of the experienced players in the squad are sorely lacking game time is another inheritance from the Lee Johnson regime.

It is a question of balance and it should have been understood and implemented from the first game of the season. Experience pros are needed to guide the youngsters through games, but it should not start and end when they cross the white line on a match day.

Aside from their physical condition, Alex Neil will know we have a hugely imbalanced squad. From goalkeeper to strikers the team is still too heavily reliant on the ability of young and inexperienced players to perform week in week out while the more experienced heads are either injured or simply not match fit.

The first challenge is to create a system and style of play that not only suits the players currently at his disposal, but one which will allow the returning old heads to fit seamlessly into once they are deemed to be match fit.

I would not be surprised to see some stellar names turning out for the Under 23s in the weeks to come as Neil looks to get minutes into the legs of the experienced squad members who, it is becoming clear, will be vital to the ability to steady what is a ship that is in danger of seeing its season capsize.


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