It feels like we have been here before, doesn't it?
For the third time in four seasons, we are entering the minefield that is the League One playoffs. After a rollercoaster campaign, the final spot in next season’s EFL Championship is up for grabs, with Sunderland, Sheffield Wednesday, MK Dons and Wycombe Wanderers all vying for promotion.
This is undoubtedly a very strong quartet, with each team possessing threats all over the park, and the ability to seize the initiative in games in an instant.
From MK Dons’ potent duo of Troy Parrott and Scott Twine, to the physicality and street smarts of Wycombe, and the creativity and attacking threats of both Sunderland and Sheffield Wednesday, you could make a strong case for any of the four teams to be worthy of promotion.
Since the appointment of Alex Neil, Sunderland have become less pretty and more pragmatic. It didn’t require a rocket scientist to identify and tackle the issues we faced, but upon his arrival, the Scot zeroed in on our defensive shortcomings, and ensured that they were rectified.
It is clear that, as a result of Neil’s influence, our first-choice selections, style of play and level of creative output has changed. Corry Evans, previously a fairly anonymous figure, is now a vital cog in the machine, whereas the previously undroppable Dan Neil is warming the bench. It was certainly a case of ‘needs must’, and recent results have certainly vindicated Alex Neil’s decisions.
In a recent episode of the ‘SAFC Unfiltered’ podcast, Neil spoke about the need to mold our defence into a functioning unit, and to ensure that we were not prone to conceding goals at the rate we often did under Lee Johnson.
He also stated that very little time had been dedicated to working on the creative side of the game, and that if he could get the defence functioning, the platform could be laid for our attacking players to take the game to opponents.
When you look at Sunderland’s squad, it is clear that there are certain players who could be absolutely key during the playoffs.
In Patrick Roberts, Alex Pritchard, Ross Stewart and the returning Aiden McGeady, Alex Neil has an abundance of quality players at his disposal, all of whom could change the game in a flash. In these high-stakes games, which can often hinge on pieces of individual brilliance, these players are vital.
In particular, Pritchard’s return has been timely.
Having contributed four goals and seven assists during his debut season on Wearside, he has certainly been a successful addition to our squad. His intricate play and ability to create something out of nothing has provided Sunderland with a different kind of threat in comparison to previous seasons.
Furthermore, Pritchard’s accuracy and variety from set pieces is another major weapon. One can assume that his place in the starting eleven is almost guaranteed for the playoffs, and his performances this season certainly warrant it.
Patrick Roberts is also an intriguing prospect.
He is a classy player, with a deft touch and an innate ability to pick out a pass, but I have to admit that I expected more from him since his arrival in January, and it would appear that his career is on a downward trajectory, after spells at various clubs at home and abroad.
A player of Roberts’ calibre needs to settle down at a club and then cement his place in the team. In my opinion, he has the ability, but has not shown it regularly enough.
On the other hand, Roberts has made one or two important contributions, and a good example came against Crewe Alexandra in March.
That day, Sunderland were set to drop points to another inferior opponent, until the introduction of Roberts and Dan Neil changed the game, and we secured a late win.
When defences are tiring, Roberts could make a significant impact off the bench, and the same can be said for Dan Neil, although there are major questions about how much game time he will be given under our current boss.
Elsewhere, we all know what Aiden McGeady can bring to the table, despite the fact that he has endured a long, injury-enforced layoff and is seemingly heading towards the end of his Sunderland career.
If I had a pound for every time I have heard ‘Give the ball to McGeady!’ barked from the Sunderland crowd, I would be able to buy all the Madrox shares!
The likelihood is that McGeady will not start either leg of the playoff semi-final, but there is no doubt that if we are chasing a goal and we need someone to provide a bit of magic, the Irishman will be beckoned.
With Nathan Broadhead’s injury status currently unclear, Sunderland may well have to look elsewhere for inspiration as we take on the challenge of Sheffield Wednesday. Broadhead has carried the mantle with great conviction in recent weeks, and it is now time for our other matchwinners to step forward.