It feels like it’s taken him a while to get acclimatised to the Championship, but since the World Cup break he’s improved a lot and has shown consistency in his performances, which is what was lacking earlier in the season.
That’s to be expected with young players, and the challenge not just for the player but also the club is whether we think they can find that consistency through being given ample opportunities to make mistakes.
With Neil and also Anthony Patterson, it appears as though the club are very dedicated to giving them chances to get the games they need, no matter what it takes. It’s a bold but effective strategy and as we’ve seen with Neil, he’s now capable of putting together a string of good performances in tough situations.
What I’ve liked recently is that he looks like he’s forming an identity. I’ve always wondered what sort of midfielder he’s actually supposed to be - we know he’s got a cracking pass on him, but what about the rest of his game?
During the last few weeks, we’ve seen him play as the holding man in a midfield two in the absence of Corry Evans, turning in much-improved defensive performances in the process.
On Saturday against Swansea, he was in amongst the goals and for the first fifteen minutes or so (prior to Luke O’Nien’s red card) he dictated the flow of the game against a side who are used to dominating possession.
All I hope is that he really kicks on from here and continues to show consistency. We need to see the current version of Neil as an all-rounder from now until the end of the season, because if we do, I think he’s got all the hallmarks of a potential Premier League player.
Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves and pile too much pressure on the lad, but what we’ve seen recently is promising.
Malc Dugdale says…
I’m very happy with how he’s done in recent weeks.
The thing that’s most pleasing for me is how he’s demonstrated his ability to learn while playing, because a couple of months ago, he seemed a little bit lost.
He didn’t seem to know what he was or what he was meant to bring to the team. He wasn’t really impacting games, the defensive side of his game wasn’t really shining, and he wasn’t as inventive or incisive in attack as he’d been earlier in the season.
The craft and precision of that goal of the month contender scored by Jack Clarke, which was put on a plate by a great team move completed by Neil, felt like it was becoming a distant memory, even though it was only in September.
I think a lot of credit goes to Tony Mowbray and the team. They saw him start to struggle part way through his first Championship season, and they’ve worked with him to improve his output.
He’s now the player that everyone knew would push for the Premier League one day- either in or out of Sunderland’s red and white stripes. What remains to be seen is whether he can continue to consistently deliver this level. If he can, we’ll do well to hold onto him if we don’t grow as fast as he is.
Phil West says…
Neil’s upturn in form over the Christmas and New Year period has been a real positive for the team and the player himself.
His talent is undeniable but there have been times during this season where he’s often looked short of confidence and as such, that’s had a detrimental effect on his game. There’s naturally been a period of adjustment as he’s slowly got to grips with the Championship, but you can see it really starting to pay dividends now.
What I really like about Neil’s current form is the greater level of maturity and awareness he’s showing.
He’s becoming a far more effective and potent presence in midfield- whether that’s through his tackling, his running or his passing, and his goal on Saturday was well-taken. If he wants to, he could become dominant in the centre of the park, and that means playing with his head up, backing himself, and not being afraid to try things.
Tony Mowbray has shown admirable faith in Neil (as he has with many players who’ve experienced ups and downs in form) and that faith is now being rewarded. Neil’s always struck me as the kind of player who’s eager to learn and will stay grounded, and those kinds of characters are exactly what we need at the club.
We’ve got some exciting options in that area of the pitch, and it’s wonderful to see our homegrown starlet making the position his own and reminding everyone of exactly why he’s long been regarded as a very exciting prospect!