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Final Day Drama: How should Sunderland boss Alex Neil approach the game down at Morecambe?

Alex Neil often says that he sets the team up differently depending on who we play - so how should Sunderland approach the game, both tactically and in terms of the starting eleven, at Morecambe on Saturday?

Photo by Zac Goodwin/PA Images via Getty Images

Phil West says...

In my opinion, Alex Neil should set Saturday’s team up with a view to attacking with pace and slickness, playing positive football, and ensuring that the result can be secured with as little drama as possible.

There should be no fear around this game, but there will be an awareness that Morecambe are fighting for their lives, and that they are likely to play with a lot of heart and determination.

The Cambridge game showed us the possibilities when an attack-minded team is chosen, and although the game changed on the red card, we really did play some excellent football, with a lot of variety, and I’d love to see a similar mindset adopted for Saturday.

Tuesday night’s game was a strange affair, and we were quite fortunate to escape with a point.

It seems churlish to criticise Neil too heavily, given that he has accrued a positive series of results recently, but I do feel that the balance against Rotherham was tilted too far in favour of containment and a safety-first mindset, instead of trying to stretch the opposition and open them up.

We haven’t got the power in midfield to engage in a slugfest against physical teams, and so it wasn’t a surprise that we struggled to get control of the game. Hopefully, a lesson has been learned there, and Saturday will see us trying to take the game to the opposition, rather than trying to stifle them and keep it tight.

In terms of selections, I would love to see the likes of Embleton and Roberts come into the starting eleven, and for Dan Neil to start in midfield.

The Rotherham game illustrated the need for us to utilise a genuine ball-player in midfield, and Neil can certainly fill that role perfectly.

We have a plethora of creative and dynamic players at our disposal, and if Alex Neil can deploy them successfully, this game is there to be won.

Sunderland v Gillingham - Sky Bet League One Photo by Trevor Wilkinson/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Malc Dugdale says...

One thing is clear to me on this topic, and that is that we cannot approach Saturday’s away game at Morecambe in any way like we did the home game against Rotherham. I don’t think I am alone in feeling that Alex Neil was way too cautious in both the shape and personnel we deployed. Once the Millers got the lead from a poorly defended set piece, we had no way to react until way too late on.

This last away game is as big as either of the play off semis for me. If we don’t win this one, we likely don’t get any more footy, it really is that simple. We can have a nightmare in the playoffs first leg and we still get ninety more minutes to get to Wembley… if we don’t win this weekend, the team leave it open to the Gods, and they may go nowhere but Skegness, for a traditional league one team holiday.

This one has to be attacked. The playoffs are in our gift - let’s not give that away.

In terms of selection, I would love to have Dennis Cirkin back in our rear guard as his defensive side as well as his attacking offerings have been missed since his injury.

I’d be happy for Wright, Batth and one other to work as a back three, but I do think we need to work out the pros and cons about keeping young Doyle in the team. Morecambe have a very prolific striker in their ranks, and if he targets Doyle as well as Rotherham’s attack did, it could be another long day for the teenager.

The main selection change though needs to be in the middle of the park in my opinion. We were desperately lacking any creativity on Tuesday, in a game where we could well have fought physicality with more skill through the middle, rather than trying to match up, and losing out as clearly as we did. Two of Dan Neil, Elliot Embleton and Alex Pritchard need to be more involved, and if this means we see less of O’Nien and Matete who both started on Tuesday, then so be it.

Gooch has offered a lot out wide the last couple of matches, and both Clarke and Roberts have contributed too, but if we start Saturday with another 3 holding players in the middle and a dearth of craft and flair, we will have an uphill battle from the off, even against a team pretty new to this level.

On our mental approach, I am sure the club will be prepping the squad for this and hopefully for the three following games to come, but if the lads pulling on that shirt we love so much cannot get up for this game, then they are in the wrong town and the wrong club.

Despite a horror show in January and into February, we have given ourselves another shot at going up, subject to one more good performance against a team battling against the drop, and then three ties against those around us.

If anyone’s head isn’t in this, drop them for someone who is bang up for it. It’s time to stand up and be counted with those who are ready for the challenge, hopefully for four more games.

Sunderland v Rotherham United - Sky Bet League One - Stadium of Light Photo by Zac Goodwin/PA Images via Getty Images

Michael Dunne says...

First things first, no matter what team Alex Neil picks on Saturday, we should really have enough for Morecambe. If we have notions about going up, this game should really be a formality. Unfortunately, this is Sunderland, and Sunderland in League One. It will certainly be tougher than it should be.

With that in mind, I think Alex Neil should go for it.

In the game against Rotherham, Neil picked a physical, less attacking-minded team with O’Nien, Evans and Matete anchoring the midfield. It is clear his hope was to match them in the engine room and ensure we are not bullied or overpowered.

It was cautious and one can understand why considering our previous encounter with them. Did it work? Probably not. Sunderland lacked creativity, a spark. This is obvious considering they had zero shots on target. It was only when the team changed in the second half that we saw some positive play. Pritchard especially making a difference.

I don’t foresee Alex Neil changing the team too much. He is quickly becoming our very own tinkerman - horses for courses is his approach, and this course is certainly different from Rotherham.

Simply, we have to win on Saturday. Anything less than that, and we are relying on other results. With this in mind, I predict Neil will bring in more creative players. I expect Elliot Embleton to come in for Jay Matete in midfield.

Matete was quiet against Rotherham - he struggled to get into the game. Whilst he has an abundance of pace and determination, he still lacks the football IQ that Embleton possesses. Embleton's ability to pick a pass out and create opportunities is an asset we need for Saturday's game. He also has been contributing on the scoresheet lately which is certainly a positive. I can see him coming into the team with an emphasis on him being our more attacking midfielder, alongside O’Nien and Evans.

The other change that may be considered is whether Alex Pritchard will start.

Pritchard looked sharp when he came on - he looked full of running, and was fresh.

Those minutes were vital to him. He is also vital to us. A fit and firing Pritchard is key to our success and if he is fit enough, he has to start. This may see Nathan Broadhead drop out.

I would be inclined to keep the defence the way it is - including Trai Hume.

Hume has the ability, I have no doubt about that. The more games he plays, the better he will become. He should certainly have more opportunities to showcase his ability against Morecambe in comparison to the last game.

Sunderland v Rotherham United - Sky Bet League One - Stadium of Light Photo by Zac Goodwin/PA Images via Getty Images
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