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Oxford United v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One

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Substance over style is all that matters now

“Neil is being realistic and is using the best approach that he believes will get us the results needed. Should we get promoted, there will be plenty of time for pretty football,” writes Michael Dunne.

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

I’ll hold my hands up here - I was a fan of Lee Johnson, and I wasn’t convinced that his sacking was going to dramatically change our fortunes.

The debate over whether sacking Johnson was the correct call has been civil war-like at times, with people on both sides of the argument vociferous in their belief in their stance.

Of course, all of it is futile at this stage. Johnson has departed and Alex Neil has been drafted in as the next man tasked with changing the fortunes of this squad - and when you compare them, there are very few similarities between them.

Chalk and cheese, some might say.

Johnson’s style of play was endearing. There was an emphasis on youth, attacking, front-foot football. If we conceded two, we would score three. This was all positive until unfortunately, at times, we would concede five or six and not score at all.

Dismissing Johnson’s work as just that would be an injustice to him - he certainly did a lot of good. Sunderland were probably as enjoyable as they were to watch in all my time supporting. He also integrated a lot of youth, and winning a cup at Wembley was also a string to his bow that not many managers of this club can say.

Unfortunately, at the back, as the famous saying goes, Sunderland were as leaky as an unstanched wench. They were as liable to lose a game by three or four goals rather than win it.

For a team that had title/promotion ambitions, that was completely unsustainable. It is understandable how the Sunderland board would find it hard to trust Johnson as manager, given the pattern of results.

Sunderland v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Since Kyril Louis-Dreyfus took control of the club there has been much talk about building an identity, a consistent style of play, and an insistence on building structures throughout the club.

With the appointment of Alex Neil, from the outside looking in, these structures have been put on hold. A back to basics approach appears to have been implemented. The club and the head coach seem to have decided that in the quest of promotion, one step back for two steps forward could reap the rewards.

It can be stated that this perspective is having the desired impact. Alex Neil has simplified the game plan for the team. With only three goals conceded in eight games, the defence has tighened up significantly. Finally, Sunderland are tougher to beat now.

Furthermore, they now have the vital ability of being able to score late goals. Since the Scot has taken over, late goals in five games have secured four win and a draw for us. The ability to do this cannot be understated. It shows that Alex Neil has given this squad belief. Belief in the game plan, in the process. Belief in themselves and their team mates too. Also, the late goals of course ensures that momentum is building win by win.

The new, least exciting style of play has been at the expense of the younger players that were getting substantial exposure to the first team. In recent games, the likes of Dan Neil, Callum Doyle and Jay Matete have had limited contributions in matches.

Players such as Corry Evans, Carl Winchester and Lynden Gooch have been chosen instead. Many fans have questioned the manager's choices but it is clear what he is going for here. I do not believe that Neil somehow doesn't think that these youngsters aren't good enough for Sunderland now. It is clearly a case of horses for courses.

Experience is essential in a promotion battle, and players like the aforementioned Evans, Danny Baath and Bailey Wright provide this. In addition, the contributions that players like Neil and Elliot Embleton can provide from the bench gives us options that arguably no other team in the play off run-in has.

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

To any Sunderland fan who watches the matches regularly, we know the football being played is not like tika-taka or anything overly aesthetic, but at this stage, does it really matter? It appears to me that the approach being taken by Alex Neil is definitely more likely to bring us closer to the promised land than anything before.

We are solid, if unspectacular. Efficient, if not effervescent.

Neil is being realistic and is using the best approach that he believes will get us the results needed. Should we get promoted, there will be plenty of time for pretty football.

At this stage, I would much rather have substance over style.


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