Tony Mowbray made just three changes to the Sunderland side that dispatched League One Shrewsbury in the FA Cup at the weekend, with many more expected pre-game.
However, due to an injury crisis engulfing the squad, the only ones he really could afford to make were to rest Anthony Patterson, Ross Stewart & Jack Clarke, with Alex Bass, Jewison Bennette and Abdoullah Ba taking up positions in the starting lineup.
On the bench, things were a little more unfamiliar. 15-year-old midfielder Chris Rigg was named on it for the second game in a row, and he was joined by a cacophony of fellow youngsters in; Jacob Carney, Ben Middlemas, Tom Watson and Mason Cotcher.
Lynden Gooch also returned to a matchday squad for the first time since Boxing Day and they were joined by the aforementioned trio on the bench.
Firstly, a staple of these analyses are the GIFs, chalkboard breakdowns and statistics. However, none of these are readily available for FA Cup games and must apologise for the lack thereof in this game specifically.
In lieu of that, and because the game itself was a dreadfully predictable affair in which the hosts sat deep and soaked up pressure while we dominated all proceedings, I’m going to take this opportunity to assess an interesting tactical tweak that Tony Mowbray has utilised in recent games - Dan Neil as a deep-lying, defensive playmaker.
Against Shrewsbury, Neil and Edouard Michut proved an effective and expansive pivot. Part of the reason why we so utterly dominated both possession and territory is largely thanks to the technical advantage the pair possess over Salop’s midfield pairing.
This is, of course, exacerbated by the gap in the league, but despite their young age and little experience, the pair are absolutely ideal for a possession side.
I had worried after a frantic opening salvo from the hosts that they would be physically out-battled and overran, but the antithesis occurred.
Michut, in particular, played a more attacking role rather than just a creator - he made two big chances, arguably could have been awarded a penalty and had three shots on goal in the game - the most in any game this season for the young Frenchman.
While Neil again battled against an experienced duo all game. A year ago, he struggled in these encounters to impose himself at all and was exactly why Alex Neil dropped him from the team during the run-in.
Of all the opposition, Blackpool’s midfield nullified the Neil-Michut pivot most effectively. An early yellow card killed the latter’s game on the day and he paid the price.
While the quality was there, he was only able to complete 20 passes and was not able to create much of note. In spite of this, he still completed over 90% of his passes.
Neil was more progressive, as he often is. Progressive passes resulted in a total of 254 yards gained for Neil against Michut’s 91. Neil also completed the most passes of any midfielders and attackers, and seven duels (ground and aerial). 23% of our overall play came down the left-hand side, and much of this was thanks to the effective partnership of Neil with O’Nien and Clarke.
The trio have played over 50 times together on that left side of the pitch and have an innate understanding now that is often underrated. Neil’s most consistent pass maker was O’Nien, and receiver Clarke.
In both games against Wigan, Dan Neil has absolutely dominated central midfield.
At home, Mowbray’s switch to a 4-1-3-2 changed the game and it was entirely predicated upon Dan Neil at the base. His performance was the first time he has played defensive midfield at this level without Corry Evans and did spectacularly.
Mogga followed a similar blueprint for the away game and here he decided to make Neil the leader in midfield - expected to be more mature and disciplined defensively and guide the younger heads around him (Ba & Michut).
He again excelled. He completed 10 duels, completed 40 passes, had the 4th highest xGC, the second-highest xGA, and picked up a late assist.
Neil played alongside Evans in his more usual position on Boxing Day, before Evans picked up the injury for which is currently still sidelined and again performed well.
He was (as usual) strong in duels, but played a more attacking role. In general, he picked the ball up 15-20 yards higher up the pitch, with Evans marshalling in behind.
This was arguably Neil’s weakest performance of the season. Or at least one of them, and I’ve included it here to compare the development he is making.
This is the first time that Neil and Ba were paired together in midfield and were taken out of the game entirely by Cardiff’s physical pivot in Wintle and Ralls.
Combined, they completed the same in one game than Neil did on his own against both Blackburn and Blackpool.
Neil again attempted many duels but this was the first time this season he lost the majority.
While early in this role, it is intriguing to see that Tony Mowbray is already developing aspects of Dan Neil’s game while trusting him in more senior roles. Just like with Amad.
The latter struggled defensively against Hull with the extra man always free on his side and so Mogga remedied this by moving the enigmatic Ivorian to a 10 and giving him a totally free role.
Neil is coming on leaps and bounds in his game management, discipline and physicality.
Just a year ago he was hardly trusted on the pitch at all - seen potentially as a luxury - but for the past three weeks he has been the main leader in central midfield.
Neil was included in Not the Top 20’s EFL 21 Under 21 last week, and for good reason.
The move, touch and cross for Clarke’s goal at Reading was genuinely World Class and on many occasions this season he has proven his prodigious talent on the ball.
But Mowbray’s trust and willingness to play Neil in a new role has shown us a new pathway, and he arguably looks absolutely perfect to be the long-term replacement for Corry Evans as Sunderland’s deep-lying playmaker.
Jay Matete is talented and needs game time, but it speaks volumes that in a possession-orientated team, Mowbray turned to Neil and not Matete to drop deeper and fill Evans’ void.