After the League One games all had their final whistle blown on Tuesday night, Sunderland found themselves in an all too familiar position. 14 games to go, sat 4th in the table, 7 points out of touch from the automatic places, and teams currently outside the playoff spots bearing down from behind.
It’s easy to get sucked into the “Sunderland doing a Sunderland” narrative, but I’ve still got hope that this season might be different.
Alex Neil will take charge this weekend after his first week of full training and preparations since taking over as manager last Friday. By all accounts, he seems to be a canny appointment for us at this level, and it’s difficult to find fans of Norwich or Preston who will speak ill of him. And for good reason.
His record is fairly good as a coach, managing in leagues above our current position. For context, and possibly to help understand just how quality this appointment is, Alex Neil has coached more games against Premier League opposition than he has against League One opposition.
His record when taking over a side shows that he can definitely get his sides up to speed on his philosophy and have them playing well in a very short span of time. After taking over Norwich in January 2015, the team went on to win 17 of its last 25 games, storming up the table and ultimately, gaining promotion to the Premier League via the playoffs.
When he took over Preston North End on the eve of the 2017/2018 season, he took the squad he had just met and only lost one of his first twelve games in charge to start the campaign.
All this in mind to say, the job ahead of him at Sunderland this season is an extraordinarily difficult one. With boardroom controversy, mismanagement of his appointment, low player morale, and a current run of form seemingly working against him. It might be, however, that a perfect run-in to this season mightn’t be as far out of reach as it sounds.
When a new manager is brought in, especially mid-season, one of the most difficult tasks at hand is getting a group of players playing in a new system - breaking old ways of playing to adapt to the new coach’s styles and preferences.
Luckily for Alex Neil and Sunderland, this job isn’t quite as hard as it would be with another manager. Neil plays a 4-2-3-1 formation, similar to what we’ve employed for much of the season so far.
He likes to play a suffocating, high press, high octane, attacking style of football from that formation, which we’ve done this season as well. Undoubtedly, there will be some tweaks that he and his staff will make, and there is much room for improvement as recent results have shown, but on the whole, the obstacle of getting the players adjusted to a completely new style of play won’t be one of the challenges Neil faces in the run-in.
That will be time gained in addressing other issues, like tightening up our defensive record.
Another major factor, working in our favor, that could contribute to improved and possibly perfect form for a run-in, is the fixture list.
Of the last ten weeks left until the end of the season, Sunderland will have only three occasions of playing two games in a week's time.
Player fatigue has been a significant part of our recent run, as key players have been noticeably exhausted from the busy schedule we’ve played to this point. For comparison, Rotherham and Wigan will be forced to play at minimum 5 and 7 midweek games respectively, and could possibly play more if they both progress in the pizza cup.
In theory, our players should finally be able to get some much deserved and well-needed rest, while the teams above are forced to push through compounding fatigue.
Additionally, of our remaining fixtures, not many of them strike fear into the heart.
The majority of Sunderland’s remaining games, in fact, come against sides currently in the bottom half of the table. In the last fortnight, that fact hasn’t worked to our advantage but, we’ve had no senior manager in the dugout and a sporting director reportedly picking the team.
5 of our final 14 games will be against teams in the promotion scrap.
Our clashes with MK, on Saturday, and Rotherham, the 26th of March, will be at the Stadium of Light. While meetings with Wigan, Oxford, and Plymouth will be away days. Wigan, MK and Plymouth we’ve beaten 2-1 each already this season and our Oxford tie earlier in the campaign, was drawn 1-1.
To me, Rotherham seem the most daunting of run-in opponents, especially considering the reverse fixture. However, it bears reminding that we are Sunderland and this is League One, and none of these teams, regardless of form or table position or reverse fixture, should be threatening us at this level.
Is a perfect run-in the most likely of potential outcomes to this season?
But is it achievable? Surely!
The lads need our support. The new gaffer needs our support. And maybe, just maybe Saturday can be the beginning of some unforgettable magic, to capture an improbable automatic promotion spot that we so desperately need.