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Sunderland v Cardiff City - Sky Bet Championship

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Dan Neil was Sunderland’s missing piece during our defeat to Stoke

Neil’s controversial red card against Middlesbrough left Mowbray without the midfielder against the Potters, and as Finlay Anderson writes, his absence was glaring.

Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

There’s no doubt that so far, 2023/2024 has been a real ‘coming of age’ season for Dan Neil in red and white.

If 2022/2023 was all about cementing a place in the starting eleven, Neil’s 2023/2023 campaign has seen him add greater quality to his performances and position himself as one of the first names on the team sheet.

A composed and ever-maturing figure in the centre of the park, the partnership he was developing with Pierre Ekwah before the Frenchman’s injury at Loftus Road was extremely promising.

Sunderland vs Middlesbrough Sky Bet Championship Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Neil’s performances have also seen him step into the ‘Corry Evans role’ in the centre of the park, as an experienced body who can control and dictate proceedings.

And so, when he was controversially dismissed by Jarred Gillett against Middlesbrough just over two weeks ago, the loss of Neil for the remaining half of football as well as the following game was always going to be a blow.

Against Stoke City, it gave Ekwah an opportunity to come straight back into the starting eleven and form another midfield partnership (this time with Jobe), but with hindsight, Neil has been a massive loss.

In the second half against Boro, it was a complete disaster.

Time and time again, we were carved open through a decimated midfield, with Neil’s red card leaving Jobe to fill that role alone.

Sunderland vs Middlesbrough Sky Bet Championship Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

And despite Boro’s position in the table ahead of the game, they’ve got players who can create those moments that win matches and against ten men, the second half was won at a canter.

Going into Saturday, there was lots of talk about who would come in if Ekwah was unfit, and how Neil’s suspension might actually benefit the side.

“Ultimately, with Dan not being there, there’ll be a space for someone to come in and showcase their talents,” said Tony Mowbray ahead of the trip to the Potteries.

Of course, this side is full of talent and ability, but what the second half against Middlesbrough and the game against Stoke proved is that if you remove Neil from the midfield and the role that he does for the team, we’ll struggle.

Stoke City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Jess Hornby/Getty Images

Time and time again at the Bet365 Stadium, it was too easy for Stoke to bypass the midfield of Ekwah and Jobe and build attacks, and so Mowbray was having to cope with the same issue that was apparent against Middlesbrough two weeks ago.

Until we experience these kinds of days, perhaps we don’t realise exactly how important Neil really is to us, and specifically how we function both in defence and attack.

Maturity has been something that’s gradually crept into Neil’s game over the last couple of years.

From the youngster who showed promise in League One to the player who’s now irreplaceable in a Championship side, the long-term injury to Evans has opened the door for Neil to improve his maturity and leadership in the centre of the park.

Sunderland v Cardiff City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

There’s no doubt that on Tuesday night at the King Power Stadium, Neil should return to the starting eleven, potentially alongside Ekwah to reignite that partnership, or alongside Jobe.

It’s just one of the potential selection choices that Mowbray will have to make, but against a Leicester side who seem unbeatable at the moment, our midfield have to be at their best.

With that in mind, and after what happened on Saturday, it seems certain that Neil will be likely to return.


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