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Charlton Athletic v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One

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Editorial: Can Alex Neil find the perfect balance?

Early signs suggest that Alex Neil is making us harder to beat, but can he strike a balance and keep us scoring goals at the same time?

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Well over 30 years of following the Lads provides an expectation that what usually follows a promising victory – a victory that suggests we’re heading in the right direction – is more often than not, a kick in the bollocks.

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a complete disaster at The Valley, but given the context of 2022 so far and the optimism that followed gaining three points in impressive fashion at Wigan last week, Saturday’s draw was at best a step backwards.

It felt like the victory at the DW Stadium was a turning point, but our goalless draw in the capital has created more questions about our new direction on the pitch under Alex Neil.

There has been much discussion over the last week about how we turned up at one of the form sides in the league and well and truly spoilt the party. We utilised tactics that have frustrated us, as the opposition, time after time over the last four years as we turned the tables and frustrated Wigan into submission.

Charlton Athletic v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Alex Pritchard will be vital in attempting to get the goals to finish in a play-off position
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

As well as those tactics were executed, we required two penalties and a free-kick to provide what was a fairly comfortable 3-0 victory on paper. We got into good attacking positions to be able to be awarded the penalties but didn’t look hugely threatening from open play otherwise.

And in this fact, there is a nagging doubt about our new direction.

It once again hints at being reactionary to what we perceived as being our biggest issue under the last regime. Our managerial appointments since we dropped into League One have seemed to swing wildly like a pendulum from one extreme to another, and a bit of balance somewhere down the line would be welcome.

With Jack Ross, we began with an attacking style of play – until the pressure got a bit much and he got a bit scared to carry it on during the business end of the season, He was followed up by an ultra-conservative Phil Parkinson, who made us so tight at the back that we forgot we were supposed to score goals... or enter the opposition’s half at all on occasions.

The discussion at the time of Parkinson’s appointment was around the new manager tweaking things a little to turn a play-off side into a team that would make the top-two, but we went through a revolution in our style of play that wasn’t really required. We just needed to be better in certain areas while keeping the good bits.

Sunderland v Mansfield Town: Emirates FA Cup First Round Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Lee Johnson then came along to be the antithesis of “Parkyball”, and the ex-Bristol City man wanted us to simply score more than the opposition – which became difficult when we forgot how to score goals but kept on conceding. Yet again another revolution in our style of play, which was backed up with personnel to pull it off.

And now we have Alex Neil, and the early signs point to a swing back into another era of conservative style organisation, built on a solid backline – which is why our last two fixtures have provided so many questions. Namely, whether the new head coach can finally strike a balance between making us difficult to beat while still impressive going forward in terms of creating goal-scoring opportunities and sticking them away.

I’m at the point now where I really don’t care how we get promoted out of this division – I’ve had my fill of this level and I want out – but we seem to keep swinging from one plan to another to rectify a specific issue. This is despite the noises coming out of the club over the last year that we have a philosophy installed that each new manager must adhere to.

The appointment of Alex Neil didn’t seem to fit with those statements, nor did it raise my levels of enthusiasm for the remainder of the season. His time in charge so far – which is far too short to make any conclusions on – hasn’t really raised my hopes of celebrating anything come May, either.

Wigan Athletic v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One - DW Stadium Photo by Barrington Coombs/PA Images via Getty Images

Sunderland just feels flat as a club, and the usual feel-good factor and bounce that a new manager quite often provides has been sorely missing – but the remainder of March provides yet another opportunity.

Four fixtures, three at home, and three of the four are against sides in the bottom seven in the table. On paper, only league-leaders Rotherham United’s visit to the Stadium of Light at the end of the month is where we might not be favourites to collect maximum points.

We know only too well, as we approach the end of our fourth straight season in the third tier, that games aren’t played on paper, and the rest of this month will provide answers to where we might be headed in the Alex Neil era – and whether or not he can find that much-needed balance.

In my mind, our squad is easily a top-six squad – if managed in the right way. However, I worry that if Alex Neil doesn’t get it right in the final two months of the season he will be tarnished by it further down the line.

Doubts over Lee Johnson lingered in certain quarters after our end to last season – and while those voices were dampened by early good results they were never far away from the surface when things went against us.

We still have a chance this season, but we desperately need to break this cycle of history repeating itself.


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