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Stick or twist? Will Alex Neil make changes for Saturday’s clash at The Valley?

Or does last weekend’s win at Wigan provide a template for Sunderland away from home?

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

So far, Alex Neil has tried just about anything to get a win, and last Saturday he finally hit on something that worked. Over the course of the game against Wigan, we were a lot more defensively minded - pragmatic, as we kept saying we needed to be away from home under Lee Johnson - and it reaped rewards.

However, I’m sure the early goal made it a more overtly defensive-minded display than it may otherwise have been. We had something to hold onto from the game’s opening moments, Wigan had to attack, and that left more space in behind them for us to exploit.

It worked down to a tee, however, the game against Charlton will be a different proposition altogether from a footballing perspective, although the nature of the game - away from home, decent atmosphere - means there are some similarities in the challenge that awaits.

The fact Neil reverted back to the 4-2-3-1 favoured under Johnson, and which the players are very familiar with, last weekend was telling. It was an obvious call, and as well as familiarity offers the benefit of enabling Alex Pritchard to play centrally. When he’s there, he’s the best player in the league, in my view. When he’s out wide, he’s not.

If the reversion to 4-2-3-1 wasn’t a surprise, the conservative selections in the wide areas certainly were - to me at least. This definitely made it Neil’s team, rather than reverting back to what had worked for Lee Johnson.

Neither Gooch nor Embleton would be in my first choice XI, especially not out wide given the relative riches we have to choose from in those positions, but to their credit, they both – Gooch particularly – did very good jobs, defensively at least. Going forwards they didn’t offer a great deal, but last weekend that evidently wasn’t their primary concern.

Sunderland v Burton Albion - Sky Bet League 1
Gooch did some impressive defensive work last weekend
Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

We also showed a very welcome streetwise quality when we were in the lead – we’ve needed to bring that into our game for a while, and that’ll continue to be invaluable.

So, what does Neil do at The Valley? Does he try to build on the win by sticking with the same formation, approach and lineup, or does he twist on the basis of a different opposition - one on a poor run of form to boot - and try something else?

My feeling is, particularly given Neil’s poor run of form since joining, we’ll go in exactly the same.

As mentioned above, we didn’t see much of the game plan for being level or behind, only leading, and given it’ll have been something they worked on prior to Wigan, I’d be surprised to see Neil mix it up, particularly for a similar type of game - especially when you consider the game-changing options we have available to us on the bench.

I suspect we’ll take the approach of getting to the hour mark at least level and try to win the game from there. So, for me, we’ll be unchanged.

There is an inherent danger in that of course, just because something worked once doesn’t mean it’ll work again, but Neil seems to be a risk-averse manager, and changing a team that beat a promotion certainty 3-0 away from home could well be a risk he isn’t prepared to take.


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