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Sunderland v Crewe Alexandra - Sky Bet League One

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Talking Points: Dan Neil changed the game against Crewe - does he deserve to start vs Lincoln?

Following Sunderland’s late victory against Crewe on Saturday, Matty discusses the impact of Dan Neil & Patrick Roberts, as well as the poor form of Corry Evans.

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Dan Neil changed the match when he came on - would he work well with Matete & O’Nien in our current system?

So far under Alex Neil we have not seen much of Dan Neil, after he was rightly taken out of the firing line.

A worry had started to creep in over if he would recover this season, but boy did he come out fighting on Saturday.

With all substitutes you expect them to prove why they should be in the team, but I would go as far as to say the England under-20 international showed the manager exactly what he was missing in midfield.

Sunderland had started the game with Luke O’Nien pushing forward, Jay Matete tirelessly battling, with Corry Evans sitting behind as cover, but the main issue was none of these players were playing any defence-splitting passes or being progressive enough on the ball.

Neil came on and instantly added intensity, he always looked to move the ball forward and as we saw with his brilliant goal, he got involved further forward with a brilliant strike to send the stadium into lift-off.

I think the overwhelming feeling for Neil was relief that he had made an impact, but also for the fans as well who love nothing more than seeing one of our own thrive.

For me, Neil is a unique option in the middle as he is creative and progressive, something the other options lack.

If Alex Neil is to stick with this new system with one sitting and two in front, I would rather see Matete as the deep protector, with Dan Neil and Luke O’Nien higher.

O’Nien is capable of the pressing and ball recovering that Matete does, which provides balance for Neil who does struggle with the defensive of midfield.

Sunderland have lacked an energetic and creative midfield throughout their tenure in League One - could Matete, O’Nien and Neil finally change that?

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

Corry Evans struggled to make an impact once again, could he be better served from the bench late on in games we need to protect?

Given my argument for the above-mentioned players to get a chance together, where does that leave our captain, Corry Evans, whose Sunderland career has never really taken off?

With Evans I am seeing similarities to the issues that arose with George Dobson. We have a defensive midfielder who is good in the tackle and sensible overall, but also who is slow and simply cannot impact the match offensively.

That is not always a negative in the right system, but for a side where the goal is promotion and who often have 60+% possession, his flaws do really start to show.

Take the past two matches where Sunderland have spent the entire match on the front foot, Evans’ inability to drive forward or break the lines with a pass really are crystal clear, which has often led to his removal.

In Sunderland’s current league scenario, we have to push to win all games or the sides around us will take our spot, so with that in my mind, I believe that Evans would be better served in the latter stages of matches if we are winning games.

If you’re 2-0 up and you want to see a match out, bringing on a sensible experienced defensive midfielder is where you would see Evans’ strengths more clearly.

I think Alex Neil would be better served by starting our more energetic and creative midfielders from the start, as Matete is more than capable of playing the central deep midfield role.

Bolton Wanderers v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One - University of Bolton Stadium Photo by Isaac Parkin/PA Images via Getty Images

With Alex Pritchard missing, is now the time for Patrick Roberts to clinch a starting place?

When Alex Pritchard went off against Charlton we all thought the worst, as he has easily been our best midfield player this season.

Given Elliot Embleton’s inconsistency this season, many wondered how Sunderland would cope without our number ten, but on Saturday Patrick Roberts showed a glimpse that he may just be the man for the job.

Similarly to Pritchard, Roberts’ touches and swift shifts ooze class, but as we had to do with Pritchard easier this season, we may have to wait for a run of starts before we see the best of the ex-Manchester City midfielder.

The 25-year-old has struggled for a real chance in the team so far, but he looked incredibly sharp against Crewe and could have easily had two goals. That fantastic nutmeg deserved a better shot than what followed!

If Alex Neil is able to unlock the best form of Roberts, he has another creative player at his disposal who has done it at superior levels - it is purely down to the player to show he has the hunger to prove to everyone that his career can be revived.

It is likely that Jermain Defoe will be replaced given his below-par performance, so with Nathan Broadhead struggling for fitness, could we see Roberts playing off Ross Stewart against Lincoln?

Sunderland v Crewe Alexandra - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Jermain Defoe struggled from the start, is he also better served as an impact sub for Sunderland?

After making a positive impact against Fleetwood, Jermain Defoe endured a disappointing afternoon against Crewe.

It has to be said that our more direct style does not favour him, but you can’t make any excuses for the poor composure he displayed when Carl Winchester played him through one vs one early in the match.

You would have put your house on the Defoe we know to score that, but we do have to remember that this is a 39-year-old version of the player we all love.

You could argue that more creative players entered the field when Defoe departed, but both our goals were scored by players who added pace and high intensity, something you won’t see from Defoe.

Defoe has played very little football all season and the question marked that was raised over signing him was that would he be able to play long games at a high intensity when Nathan Broadhead is not fit. So far the answer is no.

If the ball could fall to anyone on the pitch late on in a game, I would choose Defoe every day to shoot, but from the start of games he is struggling to make an impact and I believe he would be better served as a substitute when Sunderland are chasing a match.

For me, Defoe is best used to lift the crowd during games where Sunderland needs a goal, where he has a short period to give his all and support Stewart as a goal threat.

We all dream of that beautiful moment where Jermain Defoe scores in a Sunderland shirt once again, but right now I think it is more likely from the bench than when he is starting matches.

Sunderland v Crewe Alexandra - Sky Bet League One Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Alex Neil has some difficult formation and selection decisions to make ahead of Lincoln & Rotherham

With two difficult matches against Lincoln and Rotherham coming up, Alex Neil has some very difficult selection decisions to make.

First and foremost, in goal Anthony Patterson has achieved three clean sheets during the last four matches, looking more comfortable, but Neil must have the potential playoff campaign in the back of his mind.

On top form, Thorban Hoffmann is the best goalkeeper at the club, but on current form, Patterson deservedly has the shirt.

Hopefully given the return of Lee Burge to training and Patterson’s improved form, it will bring the best out of everyone as they are all pushing hard for one spot.

Moving into defence, Carl Winchester and Dennis Cirkin looked comfortable in a three, but you have to wonder moving forward how they will fair against Lincoln, Rotherham and Oxford where the offensive quality is far higher.

Callum Doyle hopefully can have a Neil esque return at some stage, plus Danny Baath should come back into the fold. You would on paper rather have those playing than the likes of Winchester out of position.

I thoroughly discussed our central midfield in the above sections, but the key change I would like to see out wide is Leon Dajaku for Lynden Gooch. Dajaku’s offensive quality is simply far higher, which he proved on Saturday.

Whilst I do believe Gooch is a better wing-back than winger, his offensive output has dropped severely this season, as he is without a goal all season and without an assist in 10 matches.

The key trend from these points is that Alex Neil has had to chop and change systems and players to win games, but if Sunderland are to win the playoffs, I do think Neil will have to find a more settled side before the season concludes when the quality of opposition becomes higher.

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