What made the difference away at Morecambe?
For me, the whole attack-focused setup on Saturday was the main difference, especially compared to the home game against Rotherham earlier in the week.
Instead of starting with a three-man, defence focused midfield of Matete, Evans and O’Nien, we moved Luke to left centre back, put Embleton in the middle with Evans, and sat Pritchard just ahead, behind the two front men.
This resulted in a better attacking shape in my view, which should really have scored more than one of the three shots on target (while Morecambe did not register any).
While the point on Tuesday ultimately would have been enough to keep us in the top six, after the collapse of Plymouth at home to MK Dons on the last day, we will never know if we may have nicked fourth if we hadn’t tried to match up on The Millers, and maybe opted to play around and through them, especially given we were the home side.
Then again, it is also likely that we still would have played The Owls, though maybe with the home leg second for us. The gaffer and the team got the job done though, so any armchair fan who suggests Alex’s approach was wrong cannot really stand the argument up for too long.
Did we deserve the win and our fifth place?
Absolutely! The form that Alex Neil and the lads have shown across the last dozen games or so is something we all have to acknowledge as pretty bloody impressive.
We all accept that the football put out there by the head coach wasn’t as glitzy and flash as it was at times under Johnson’s realm, but we are unbeaten in 13 games (our last loss being mid-February, at home to MK Dons), and we are top of the form table as we enter the playoff stages.
In every season since we did the double drop, including the farce that was decided by PPG, we have tended to fall away in form as the season has approached the climax of the league matches. It has to be seen as a positive that we took the ability to win our own playoff place into the final day, and then we did that. We also emerged above all of MK Dons, Sheffield Wednesday and Wycombe in the form stats.
Confidence in our defence has to be high too, despite the depleted nature of the rear guard. We have let in seven goals across the 13 games, almost one every other match. We are proper stingy, and that is a good thing to be.
Alex Neil has come in, made us hard to beat, tough to score against, and he has achieved all that with a battered squad which isn’t his. He has made a real fist of the tail end of the season, which we hope he can continue into the playoff games.
We totally deserve the playoff slot, and we probably deserve another Wembley visit more this time than any before, especially if our form in the last quarter of the season is to go by.
Any downsides to the game?
The main downside to the game has been much discussed by the RR team, in that our goal scorer Broadhead slotted a cracking opener in the tenth minute, but sat down with “a niggle” about 15 minutes later, to be replaced by young Jack Clarke.
Though I am concerned about the amount of time he has spent in the treatment room this season, a stat which is now going to extend further, I have to say Nathan has been an absolute revelation when fit. His ability to get into dangerous areas even when the chips are very much against us has been a massive boost to our attacking prowess, and losing him even for part of the playoff process will be a huge blow.
We are very much going to need to borrow the old oxygen tent, once much treasured by the likes of Rooney and Beckham, to get him back. I do agree that the club and certain players have left us very short of options, but if anyone has the squad to grind out a few more wins though, why not Sunderland?
We may have lost Nathan at least for one playoff tie, but we need to dig deep and find a way with Stewart, Roberts, Clarke, Gooch, Embleton, Dajaku, Neil and Pritchard. We need more set piece goals from the wider team too, including centre backs like Wright and Batth. We need Cirkin, Evans, Matete and even Huggins to chip in where they can.
This remains a very strong squad, and a one which has 26 goals between the four other next best scorers this season (excluding Aidan O’Brien... ahem), with eight for Embleton, four each for Pritchard, Dajaku and O’Nien, and three each for Dan Neil and our returning veteran, Aiden McGeady. There is also a lot of attacking promise in the likes of Clarke and Roberts, both of whom have scored lovely goals in their short tenure.
We may need to dig deep, but a lot of sides would be over the moon with that depth we have. We just need others to step up if Broadhead cannot.
Final thoughts as we head to the semis?
Despite the injury issues we have front to back, we have a lot of reason to be positive about the way we have secured our playoff place after that massive slump early in the year, and what we can now do with this opportunity.
The gaffer has said since his start in the role that results are everything. Now we have made the top six, for a few games we can forget about all the dross teams that have come to our place and parked the bus, and also those who have done the same when we have headed to their place too. Ross Stewart and his attacking support players should have more freedom to play and to score in these three matches, and with a solid backline to fall back on, this really could be our time.
The one team out of the remaining four who can grind out just three more results will go up with Champions Wigan, and runners up Rotherham. Let's hope that is us, as we have had more than our share of third division football for now.