After defeats at Rotherham and Coventry, during which our midfield struggled, the decision by Tony Mowbray to play Dan Neil by himself could only be described as baffling.
In these defeats, Neil has been partnered by Eduoard Michut. However, today, the Frenchman dropped to the bench and was replaced by the more attacking-minded Alex Pritchard. This left Neil by himself, isolated from the rest of the team when attacking and left Sunderland’s defence exposed whenever Stoke ventured forward.
Even after Michut came on at half time, the Sunderland defence was exposed every time Stoke went forward.
Neil, however, is not blameless for today’s debacle in the middle of the park, despite being left alone for the first half. The Potters’ second goal encapsulates this perfectly. Neil’s attempted back pass was cut out by Dwight Gayle. This would eventually result in Tyrese Campbell slotting into an empty net and in turn, giving Sunderland a mountain to climb.
So, what is the answer for Tony Mowbray and Sunderland?
The obvious answer is bringing in someone with some physicality.
This could come in the form of Pierre Ekwah. Since joining Sunderland from West Ham in January, Ekwah has been limited to just 37 minutes across four appearances. Despite this, the 20-year-old comes with a big reputation having shown promise at both Chelsea and West Ham. Should Ekwah come into the side, this would free Dan Neil to play in a role further forward, a position he had begun to flourish in before Corry Evans suffered a knee injury against Middlesbrough.
Another option to play this role is Luke O’nien, who has not started in midfield since a 3-0 win at QPR despite a strong performance at Loftus Road, even grabbing himself a goal. Whilst O’Nien is limited in this position, he does provide physicailty, stability and has the ability to wind up the opposition when required. This has also been what Sunderland have lacked in midfield at times recently, the ability to break up play with tactical fouls and slow the game down. Just look at Stoke’s Ben Pearson today. Pearson took the sting out of the game with fouls when he needed to, and then when Sunderland began to build some momentum, Pearson went down with a supposed injury. Almost every other team in this division employs these tactics and get away with it.
Whatever the answer to Sunderland’s midfield dilemma, Tony Mowbray must find it quickly if we are to reignite our season.