Alex Neil seals his first SAFC win – and it was a return to 4-2-3-1 that did it
Alex Neil has played around with different formations since he took over, but it was a return to the 4-2-3-1 that was Lee Johnson’s first choice this season that brought about the best performance of Neil’s spell in charge.
When the team sheet was announced at 2pm, a few eyebrows were raised.
I must admit, I didn’t agree with the selection of Embleton and Gooch, but to be fair they both put a good shift in, restricted Wigan’s full-backs, and played important roles in the win.
It wasn’t a perfect performance – our pass completion was just over 50%, but at long last, it gives us something to build on.
At long last, Arby got a game – and it was worth waiting for
The Kosovan was signed by Phil Parkinson (remember him?) but today was his first league start for Sunderland – 18 months after he was injured on international duty.
His performances at under 23 level have received mixed reports, but against Wigan he barely put a foot wrong. He defended well against a tough opponent in Magennis, stood up to the physical battle and was dominant in the air. On the ball, he was impressively composed, played some lovely passes into feet and was able to switch play well.
When Lee Johnson came in he commented that, statistically, Xhemajli was one of the best defenders in the league (although I’m not sure how that was worked out!) and if he can get a run in the side he could be an important player for us going forward.
It does, of course, beg the question of why he hasn’t been given a go before, but looking forward it’s good to have another strong option in an area of the team that’s been our weakest.
We saw a different side to Sunderland – and it was long overdue
This season, we have been a soft touch away from home – we often went into games too open, and looked to play our own game without any consideration to our opponents.
Before Saturday, we’d conceded 33 in 17 games, winning only five of those – not a record that gets you promoted. We’ve conceded a hell of a lot away from home – 5 at Rotherham, 3 at Sheff Wed, 6 at Bolton, 3 at Wycombe for starters – and one of Neil’s first tasks has been to make us more difficult to beat away from home.
Against Wigan, we looked a lot more solid, took a more pragmatic approach to the game, and it made a pleasing change to see us do the ‘dirty’ side of the game well. We slowed the game down, frustrated Wigan, and stood up to the physical threat, too.
It was nice to see us do to Wigan what so many teams do to us, and for that Neil must be applauded.
Patterson coming into his own
I’ve been critical of Anthony Patterson’s continued selection ahead of Hoffmann, but his performance against Wigan was excellent.
Bar one miscommunication with Xhemajli in the first half, Patterson did really well – his handling was clean and he dominated his 6-yard box impressively in the second half.
He’ll deservedly keep his place for next week, and the clean sheet will do wonders for his confidence.
Max Power: ha’way man
I watched Max Power’s performance with interest – particularly after the predictable fawning over him during the week.
The first thing I noticed was his long throw, which I can never remember us using – the curse of Rory Delap strikes again. However, I think Power was a key reason we won the game – he lost control of himself. He was far more bothered about strutting around, getting other people wound up and trying to referee the game, and in the end, only succeeded in winding himself up – to the detriment of his team.
He should have been booked for a foul before he got his yellow card for gamesmanship when Stewart was about to take his first penalty and could count himself lucky not to see red as he was continually in the referee’s face.
Credit where it’s due, he did acknowledge the Sunderland supporters at the game’s conclusion, but his display only confirmed to me we made the right call in getting shot.
Another interesting refereeing display
And, speaking of the referee... where the hell did he get 8 minutes of injury time from?
Teams come to the SoL, waste far more time than we did, and we’re lucky to get four minutes – when each team have made three subs.
Fortunately, the fact we were three up made it irrelevant, but if there’d only been a goal in the game the insane amount of added time would have attracted significant scrutiny.
That was the tip of the iceberg for Sam Purkiss, who in a bizarre series of second-half decisions made a Wigan player go off while they had a corner to fix his shinpads, made Dennis Cirkin go off the pitch in the right-back position after receiving treatment in the centre of the pitch, and then made Arby leave the field after... not receiving treatment.
His judgement on what was and wasn’t a yellow card was dubious, to say the least – McClean’s tackle on Pritchard at the start of the second half was one of the worst of the afternoon – but to be fair to him a spotted the clear handball for our second penalty that everyone else seemed to miss, so he did redeem himself somewhat.
A glimmer of hope...
Typical Sunderland – they suck you back in just when you thought it wasn’t possible.
Automatics are off the cards, but if Alex Neil can build on this result over the coming weeks we have a chance of going up through the play-offs.
Charlton away next week will be a tough game, but this result will give the players, manager and fans confidence. This wasn’t a perfect performance by any stretch – bar the three goals from set-pieces, we had one shot on target in open play, and our ball retention was poor on occasion – but we ground out a superb result and, ultimately, that’s all that matters.
Hopefully, it’s the beginning of a strong end to the season.