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Positive or Cautious: What route should Alex Neil take when he picks his side vs Oxford?

If you were Alex Neil, on Saturday would you stick with the more positive setup we’ve seen recently in games against weaker opposition, or would you make changes to be more cautious?

Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Joseph Tulip says...

There are a few personnel changes that I would make if I was picking the team, but that doesn’t mean anything. Right now I will back whatever Alex Neil does to the hilt.

I feel as though we’re currently lacking a Dan Neil type ball player in the centre of the park, but I still believe we’d have broken Gillingham’s resistance on Saturday had we maximised our width.

I’d stick with Roberts and Clarke, making sure they use both feet, going outside the fullback as well as cutting in, while allowing our own fullbacks more licence to get forward on the overlap.

With Oxford just as keen to win as we will be, I think our attackers will find more space to exploit, so I wouldn’t change much, if anything going into this game.

Does Nathan Broadhead deserve a start? Probably, as does Elliot Embleton.

But it’s a squad game and they can make a big impact once again from the bench.

If Broadhead is fully fit, maybe there would be no harm in giving Ross Stewart a well deserved rest, but I don’t see that happening.

We have options but hopefully our squad size will be an advantage in the run in.

Sunderland v Fleetwood Town - Sky Bet League One Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Gav says...

I did briefly look into this whilst we were recording the podcast this week, and it was interesting that when we went to Wigan and won 3-0, we went with a back four.

That was a while ago now though, and Oxford are a different proposition - they favour a back five with wingbacks, and I just wonder if Neil might fancy matching them up.

That would allow him to get some more defensive-minded players into the team, like Lynden Gooch at right wing back, dropping Carl Winchester into the back three and going with a pressing front two of Nathan Broadhead and Ross Stewart.

However, if it was down to me I’d stick with the shape that has served us well over recent weeks but with a few tweaks. It’s clear that he favours experience over youth, so whilst I’d love to see a sprinkling of Hume, Neil and Matete from time to time, I reckon we’ll see a handful of key changes - Gooch coming in for Clarke, and Broadhead coming in for Roberts.

It won’t be pretty but we have to stay organised, regardless of the fact Oxford have had three poor results recently, and must pick players who can stay defensively disciplined.

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

Sean Brown says...

What I’d like to see from the side is converted chances, so whether or not Alex Neil can help this along on Saturday with his selection is debatable.

It’s not like he isn’t starting the league’s highest scorer or surrounding him with creative talent, it’s just for whatever reason Ross Stewart is going through one of those phases. I don’t think it’s necessarily on players like Clarke or Roberts, I think they need a bit more time and a little less pressure to get the best out of them.

The problem for me with our strikers in recent years has always been that they become irreplaceable fast. Rarely do others step up, and even those that stand in for cup games and bag a few still somehow struggle to hit a barn door when it matters, until they f*ck off back down south of course.

Broadhead has been the exception to that rule this season and we know the only thing holding him back are injuries. His hunger for goals and his ability to hit the target has been welcome when he’s been fit enough to play, but can he play without Stewart?

Can we lose all the work Stewart does off the ball - which is by no means as glamorous but is often necessary - particularly when it comes to occupying the attention of the opposition's back line?

I don’t know in all honesty, but I do think at this point in the season Alex Neil has to be utterly ruthless in his decision-making. He sees things we don’t see on the training ground, he knows where the players' heads are at and he knows what he wants from them all. Again, I don’t envy him for the lack of time he has to make all this work.

As for my personal preference… well I’d like to see Evans swapped out for Matete, but I don’t think Neil will do this as it may carry more of a risk against sides like Oxford. I’d love Jack Clarke to stop running into walls and taking wild shots from distance and slot a few clever balls into feet, but he’s likely to keep going for glory until someone in the squad pulls him up on it. I’d love to find a way to fit Pritch, Broadhead and Roberts together in a glorious ‘pure football’ manner, but I’ve no idea how exactly that setup would work and this isn’t the time for experimentation.

So, I’ll just trust the gaffer to make the best decision he can and hope the lads can do what is required - and if they don’t, I’ll declare that using hindsight I’d have probably done things differently.

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

Andrew Smithson says...

I can understand the argument behind being a bit more defensive, and the players have shown a few times this season that they are adaptable enough to do it, but I’d rather see us go for it on Saturday and really give Oxford United something to think about.

We’ve got the attacking talent to threaten most sides in the division, and with the hosts unlikely to be putting ten men behind the ball themselves, I can see us creating some openings.

Oxford have not won in three games now and after losing to Morecambe in midweek could be feeling a little low on confidence, so if we start off on the front foot and get an early goal the hosts could crumble. The fact we didnt play on Tuesday might mean we are a little fresher too, so if we can get the ball down and run at their defence the likes of Roberts could find plenty of space. The more minutes he plays the sharper he will become and the greater his understanding of his teammates will be aswell, so it may make more sense to leave the changes until the busy Easter weekend.

That said, we can still be crafty in how we approach things on Saturday. We have seen before that Robinson has a tendency to throw his toys out when things dont go his way so it would be great to see the likes of O’Nien stirring the pot and giving him a taste of his own medicine. Alongside Evans he provides a fair bit of cover anyway, and with our defence looking a bit more steady in recent weeks I think we can afford to chance our arm a bit.

Neil has shown himself to be pretty adept tactically so far, and some of his substitutions have made a real difference in matched, so fingers crossed he gets the game plan and balance right.

Wycombe Wanderers v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Alex Burstow/Getty Images

Malc Dugdale says...

I’d like to see some tweaks based on what Alex Neil is clearly trying to implement and is learning, but this is a pivotal game against a side around us in the playoffs chase, so I expect him to be cautiously aggressive with his tactics, but attack based all the same.

Oxford are one of the teams who have form that is dropping off, so we need to put them out of the race for our own benefit - we cannot assume anything despite them not winning since 4 games ago, and us winning 3 of the last 4. They put 4 goals each past both Cambridge and Burton across the last 6 weeks or so, both at home (and coming from behind against Cambridge, who scored 6 minutes in), so we need to be on our guard that they don’t get away on the front foot.

I’d be happy if we were to revert to a back 3 to enable the wing back model to give us extra width in attack - Trai Hume is conspicuous in his absence, but may make a real difference if we do play that way; I would love to see Broadhead start with Stewart but there is the risk of injuries returning if we rush him, meaning he may again come on from the bench - if he has the impact he did last time that’s fine; I’m happy if we continue with Roberts but I think we maybe should bench Clarke, and use him as an impact sub partway into the second 45. His end product needed to be better last time out, but he can do very well against tired legs I’m sure; I’d love to see Dan Neil back in the middle with O’Nien, and/or maybe Matete rather than Evans. Corry did okay in the last game, but okay isn’t a captain's performance, and that’s what we need for these last six games from everyone out there in our colours.

All that said, if it’s another 1-0 win and we carry on our resurgence up the playoff places, I don’t care how we play as long as the result is right. The points are the main thing, as not many teams about us are faltering so we simply cannot falter either.

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