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Lincoln City v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One

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Talking Points: Two points dropped but positive signs... too little, too late?

There’s no margin for error now as Sunderland dropped two points at Lincoln. Here’s the key talking points from the game.

Photo by Chris Vaughan - CameraSport via Getty Images

Two points dropped – no ifs, buts or maybes

If our margin for error was minuscule before the game, it’s not existent afterwards. Earlier in the season, we may well have looked at a draw at Sincil Bank as an OK result – we’d certainly have welcomed it last May – but this weekend we needed three points, and only came away with one. For all of the positives – and I do believe there were a few – the simple fact of the matter is that we needed to win, and failed to do so.

Lincoln City v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
At this stage of the season, it’s definitely two points dropped
Photo by Chris Vaughan - CameraSport via Getty Images

Defensively we look well drilled. But where have the goals gone?

Since Alex Neil came in, we’ve certainly strengthened our defence – we no longer look wide open or likely to conceded with any regularity, as one goal conceded in the past five games testify. Neil said on the club podcast last week he had been concentrating on defensive set up in the knowledge we had the attacking players that would score enough goals. And, to be fair to Neil, we could – and should – have had four or five goals.

Corry Evans, Jack Clarke and Dan Neil all missed chances that they should have put away, the keeper pulled off good saves from Evans and Ross Stewart, and we should have had three penalties (more on that later). Responsibility for that can’t really be put at the manager’s door. However, a concern has to be the lack of chances created for Stewart and, when he came on, Jermain Defoe. We need to be creating more for our central attackers, and Stewart’s lack of goals since Neil arrived suggests the team’s not set up to maximise the big man’s ability.

Lincoln City v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Where’s the service?
Photo by Chris Vaughan - CameraSport via Getty Images

Jay Matete dropped and Corry Evans retained his place: Alex Neil’s not afraid of going against popular opinion

If you’d asked me before the game, I’d have said Jay Matete was guaranteed to start and Corry Evans certainly shouldn’t. The skipper has been poor for weeks now and Matete’s strength, endeavour and quality have added a lot to the midfield since his arrival from Fleetwood. It was a big call from Alex Neil to drop Matete – and while I don’t necessarily think it paid off 100%, Corry Evans did have a good game, arguably his best since arriving at the club – albeit it’s a pretty low bar he has set.

Lincoln City v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Credit where it’s due, Evans had a decent game in the centre of midfield
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Patrick Roberts and Jack Clarke are coming into form – and that could be a big plus over the coming weeks

I really like both Roberts and Clarke as players from what we’ve seen so far, but since their arrival they’ve both struggled for fitness and form. Roberts produced his best performance so far on Saturday – he looked a class above everyone else on the field, and was a constant threat to Lincoln’s defence. Clarke, too, playing a bit more of a defensive role than he’d ideally like, showed great willing and a large amount of ability, too. He should have scored, granted, but the two of them are game changers, match winners, and we will need them to produce over the coming weeks.

Lincoln City v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Roberts shone on Saturday
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

We’re seriously missing the guile of Alex Pritchard

While Roberts and Clarke are starting to come good, we’re missing Alex Pritchard massively. Luke O’Nien has been played in that ‘number 10’ role in the past couple of games and while he is capable of doing a job there he just doesn’t have the craft and guile of Alex Pritchard. The former Norwich man is, in my view, the best creative player in League One, and has been instrumental in everything good we’ve done this season. Hopefully, given the two-week break we now have, he’ll be able to get himself fit enough to be in the starting XI when Gillingham turn up at the Stadium of Light a week on Saturday.

Charlton Athletic v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Hopefully, Pritchard will be back soon
Photo by Ivan Yordanov/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

League One refs. Urgh

Once again, the standard of refereeing was pretty dire. We had thee clear penalty calls ignored – two on Ross Stewart and another on Patrick Roberts – completely ignored, and these decisions could well make or break our season. Yes, it shouldn’t come down to that, and we should have scored enough without those decisions having an effect on the outcome of the game, but regardless we were very, very hard done by. The most frustrating thing was the linesmen in all three cases had good views of the incidents but failed to spot them. Poor.

Lincoln City v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Stewart almost bagged a late header, but should have had two penalties earlier
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Seven games left – will we make the play offs?

So, it’s come down to this. Seven games, four at home, 21 points to play for. By my reckoning, winning them all will guarantee us finishing in the top six, and getting maximum points has to be the aim. We’ve got no margin for error. However, there are some promising signs – we look far more difficult to beat, we do have goals in the team, and we have Pritchard and Broadhead – and potentially Aiden McGeady – to come back into the fold. I think Alex Neil’s shaping the team up well, but the unfortunate reality is that games are running out. It’s going to be tight... can we do it?

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