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Ice cold Alex makes a change from frozen predecessors

“A month into the job, Alex Neil is starting to put his stamp on the side - and the signs are encouraging” writes Jon Guy.

Ross Johnston

A week is a long time in politics, and a month can make or break a side in the EFL.

Alex Neil inherited a shell shocked squad following some woeful results, and even he admitted a week in that the task he faced was a big one. The hope for new manager bounce never left the floor, and there was a fair section of the fanbase who already had the knives out.

Two weeks in, with two draws against Wimbledon and Burton and a defeat in his first home game against MK Dons, he was clearly keen to see a change in the mentality of the squad, and an enhanced ability to put into practice what they had been working on in training.

He came with a solid recommendation from the fans of Norwich and Preston, who all said he was a good boss and had been sorry to see his tenure end at Carrow Road and Deepdale, so there had to be something right?

Sunderland v Fleetwood Town - Sky Bet League One Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Well, if the first three performances were underwhelming, our trip to Wigan was a revelation - and to play with such confidence against a side who had spent big and had built a good head of steam looked to point to a brighter future for the team, given that the return to action of some pretty pivotal members of the squad was imminent.

Ah… but we are talking about Sunderland here. We headed to The Valley to play a stricken Charlton Athletic team which couldn’t buy a win in their past five games, and were there for the taking.

The return of Broadhead gave us a further boost, but while we dominated possession and created the chances, our woes in front of goal continued to the frustration of the fans, the players and the boss alike.

Tuesday’s visit of Fleetwood was, for me, the defining performance of the Neil tenure to date. Forget Wigan, up 1-0 in the first two minutes and a performance in which were able to control and counter a home side who were happy to push for 88 minutes.

No, Fleetwood Town came to frustrate. Neil had changed the side, although fans were left once again wondering what Evans has on the boss to get a starting slot week in and week out, with Roberts and Clarke in the eleven, with Broadhead seemingly having suffered an injury in the minutes before kick-off.

Sunderland v Burton Albion - Sky Bet League 1 Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

I don’t know what was more frustrating: Fleetwood’s tactics or the team’s first half performance? We were awful, and we were one goal down. It needed a Plan B - something that under Jack Ross, Lee Johnson, et al has been missing.

The frustration we have all felt during our current tenure in this god-forsaken division - when it has been obvious changes needed to be made but the coach seemed to either be unwilling to sub his favourites, or was frozen by the need to make a decision - has often been palpable.

Not so Neil. Two big changes, including hooking Evans, and we come out with a different plan and one which works, albeit is was effective rather than attractive. Here is a coach who doesn’t fear change and has more than one strategy in his coaching manual.

One month in he seems to understand what he has inherited. Publicly he said that he felt some of the youngsters were out on their feet, and has since rested Doyle and rotated his squad, although the return of Arby and O’Nien will have helped significantly.

He has been honest that he believes the performances so far need to be better - they need to match Wigan at least, and the fact that with the standard of the squad we should be winning every game we play in this division.

The first month in any job is often a case of finding your feet, understanding how things work, and starting to make your own mark. I for one think Neil’s first four weeks have finally showing signs of the improvements we had all wanted and hoped for.

The biggest plus is we have a coach who can make a decision when Plan A goes out the window.


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