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Oxford United v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One

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Talking Points: Fantastic win for Sunderland, but plenty of questions still remain...

Alex Neil’s substitutions once again turned a good away point into a great three-point haul. Malc was at the game, and shares his talking points as we rejoin the top six with five games to play.

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Patto - Deservedly our Number 1

I have to start by giving young Patterson a major pat on the back, as I think this is the best live performance I have seen him have, and it is possibly one of his best performances since becoming serious competition for the number one shirt.

Yes, he had a bit of an issue with his distribution from time to time (which our Bomber told me was notably iffy just after half time, while I was on the way back from the bar), but all keepers have a bit of that now and again.

I vividly recall Tim Carter kicking the ball straight into touch more times than not throughout an away NUFC derby in the early 90s. The Newcastle crowd gave him so much crap for it (as we would, be it the other way around), he couldn’t stop doing it, which was one factor in the loss we suffered that day, much to the joy of the unwashed.

Patterson didn’t crumble like that down in Oxford though, despite being of a very young age for a keeper, which is credit to him and the coaching he has had given to him.

Lincoln City v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Nice one Ant. Keep it up lad.
Photo by Chris Vaughan - CameraSport via Getty Images

Ignoring a few hoofs too close to touch, there were two saves that he made, one in each half, that very much kept us in the game and helped us secure the win as much as any other player in my view.

In the first half when the game had hardly even warmed up, one of the Oxford attacking line curled a tasty looking shot toward the top bin, which he had to tip over and around the top corner at full stretch with his left hand. A warning sign that Oxford were not going to be making up the numbers like other teams have of late, and one which he dealt with very well, demonstrating great skill and concentration from very early in the game.

The second half save was another level, however. Oxford to their credit had built quite an effective attack down the right side, with a couple of missed/soft tackles from SAFC helping them along the way, and the resulting cross was headed like a missile from about three yards out. Somehow, Patto managed to save it and push it out for a corner.

You can coach young goalies the skills of modern distribution with hands and feet, and this is a major requirement of the game these days which have helped the likes of Pickford go as far as he has, but you cannot teach instinctive stopping, and that is what Patterson showed. Well done lad, you are keeping that shirt for the rest of the season for me.

We won, but our width is still not working

One of the repeated downsides I am seeing in Sunderland’s play of late was duplicated again at the Kassam, unfortunately. Lynden Gooch was handed a start but continued to fail to hug the touchline or to take his man on as others have, despite being urged to do so by a packed away end who were screaming for him to go forward time and again.

Clarke was equally as ineffective at times, becoming way too predictable with his preference to cut in off the wing rather than take a man on outside, which is he capable of doing.

At one point in the first half he did so - he brought the ball down, took it outside his opponent and beat him with five yards of instant pace, only to then cut inside further up the pitch and lose the ball.

Yes, he won the free kick that led to Evans’ toe-poke, but he needs to know that defenders predicting his next move means he has to vary things more to succeed more often.

Sunderland v Crewe Alexandra - Sky Bet League One
Variety is the spice of life Jack
Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

We have one of the best strikers in the league, who happens to be well over 6ft tall and very good at leaping above defenders, but I cannot remember anyone putting in a cross from out wide, not even one that got close to him. Meanwhile, Oxford got a goal from a set piece, demonstrating how to put the ball right on the forehead of a big lad.

One of the main takeaways from that match for me (and hopefully the coach) will be to consider how we improve our width ready for the next five games.

We cannot repeatedly go back and sidewards when we have chances to break and counterattack with width. Whether Gooch and Clarke are the right personnel, or whether what they are being asked to do is the issue, I don't know, but we will create and score more goals if we can get to the dead ball line more often.

To do that, we need to beat a man from time to time, and Saturday we could have done better at this for sure.

We missed Pritch through the centre of the park

In addition to the issues with our wide options, we also lacked penetration through the middle of the park for me, and the glaring reason for that was the lack of Alex Pritchard in the squad.

If Pritch had been fit and in that starting line up, I am certain we would have won that game way more comfortably.

The toil and industry of Matete was great to see and he is clearly a great asset for us, and his run to initiate the move for the winner was fantastic. Having him, Evans and O’Nien in the middle just starves us of the creativity that Pritchard and young Dan Neil can provide though, in my view.

Time and again we missed out on that killer pass or that complex move that creates time and space for our teammates. I’m not totally sure why Neil wasn’t used as a sub to resolve this issue, but watching live, the midfield passing executed by Oxford was at times way better than that of our own.

We need to consider how we can run the midfield better, both with and without wee Alex. Maybe Roberts was expected to do more in Alex’s absence, I don’t know, but he was subbed off after 45 minutes having not really made much impact on the game at all.

Hopefully it was just an off day for him, as he has been great in recent games.

Thankfully, the gaffer said in his post-match commentary that Alex just didn’t feel right with a calf, so it isn’t a full-on injury they are dealing with, more a slight niggle they didn’t want to risk.

We got the three points and hence got away with that lack of spark in the middle in this game, but we may not in the other five games we have left, especially against the likes of Rotherham at home and Plymouth away.

Sunderland v Gillingham - Sky Bet League One
We missed you wee man. Hope you’re back soon.
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Ross is still not firing, and Nathan missed a sitter, but Embo saves the day

The game was a hard-fought one on Saturday and we got the win, but we didn’t manage to get the big fella back on the score sheet, and we really should have.

The opportunity in the second half that presented itself to him after a mistake by the Oxford defence could and should have resulted in a 3-1 win and a goal for Ross, but he couldn’t steer the ball around the goalie from the penalty spot.

Similarly, Broadhead couldn’t convert from about eight yards in the first half after Ross squared it to him, though he was marked. Should have done better though.

While it is great that we got three points on the road, and that a player like Corry Evans managed to poke the first goal in to quieten some of his detractors of late (which include me), we simply have to get Nessie firing again as we approach these last few games and hopefully, the playoffs.

I will say in his defence, both the Ref and his assistants gave Ross nothing at the Kassam - be it manhandling from behind or offsides that we in the crowd could clearly see were on side, he didn’t get any rub of the green from officials.

In true Stewart fashion though, he still worked his arse off for the whole game, and he did get an assist for the winner... which brings me on to Embleton.

When the board went up on about 84 minutes that Embo was coming on for Clarke, most of the fans around me totally supported the decision, but they also questioned the timing to a man. Clarke had not had his best game, and most fans were of the view Embleton could have been given at least 15-20 minutes to make an impact.

All us fans were left cheering every bite of our humble pie four minutes later, though, when Embleton put the ball in the net, after a sweet assist through a square ball from none other than Ross Stewart.

Sunderland v Portsmouth - Sky Bet League One
Embo and Rossco link up again - a crucial 3 point winning goal.
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

It raises as many questions as answers for me though - does Elliot now get a start ahead of Clarke, or Roberts, or Gooch? Do we stick with the shape and personnel that Alex has been preferring, or do we slot in Embo more for these last few games?

We are told that the coach looks for experience in the team when the asks are big. Elliot got promoted while on loan at Blackpool last season. What more experience can you ask for given where we are than that?

The one thing we cannot doubt though is the effectiveness of Alex Neil’s subs. Once again we have won a game and the win has been greatly influenced by the subs that he has put on in the match. This is night and day compared to the likes of Parkinson and Johnson.

Having an effective substitution strategy is another arrow in our armoury, and with a squad like ours, it is great to see the new gaffer using every man and every minute to our benefit.

Back home to play Shrewsbury then, with a week off to coach and recover, and all of the teams around us apart from top of the league Wigan either drew or lost, from second down to 11th place Portsmouth.

Are the playoff gods finally starting to show us some grace as we approach the business end? Our fans were incredible at Oxford, and deserve some good fortune.

Let’s hope this time is our time.

Oxford United v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Get in. Well coached Alex.
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

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