With the first four games of the season under our belt, the debates around Sunderland have been raging:
- Frustration over the lack of a striker
- The futures of Danny Batth, Alex Pritchard and Lynden Gooch
- Can we keep both Jack Clarke and Patrick Roberts?
- Can Jobe Bellingham be the solution up front?
- Is Labrador saviour Luke O’Nien really a centre back?
- And so much more.
With those topics occupying the attention of fans, it’s no surprise that other issues haven’t attracted the focus they deserve.
For me, the player who’s been most impressive in our opening four matches has been Dan Neil, and he’s quietly and efficiently gone about the business of being, in my view, our most important and influential player.
During almost four hundred minutes of Championship football, it’s difficult to remember a misplaced pass, a loss of possession or an ineffective tackle from the outstanding local lad.
His work rate has been exceptional from minute one, and it’s clear that Tony Mowbray is asking him to play a more proactive role than he undertook last season.
When the seriousness of Corry Evans’ injury became clear, there was a huge gap in the team, with no obvious candidate to step into the role of holding midfielder, and it took Neil some time to adjust to playing a more defensive position than his skill set appeared suited to.
Particularly for such a young player, he showed a tremendous amount of discipline and maturity as he shouldered the responsibility of becoming Evans’ replacement and by the end of last season, he’d firmly established himself in that role.
Having surprised many as a newly-promoted team last year, Mowbray’s approach to the ‘difficult second season’ has been to adjust our tactics from fast-flowing counter attacks to a greater emphasis on possession and control.
Within that, there’s been greater positional mobility, and all four defenders have the capability to step into midfield, moving fluidly from a back four to a back three.
Ahead of them, Neil and Pierre Ekwah are now mixing up the midfield duties, with the increasingly impressive Ekwah frequently taking on the holding role, and Neil given greater freedom to roam forward.
Against Rotherham, it was no accident that he appeared on the byline to head the ball back for Jobe Bellingham to open his Sunderland account. He now has the opportunity again to make full use of his passing and awareness in a more attacking role.
In our four games so far, Neil has appeared frequently on the right flank to support Patrick Roberts’ wing play, engaged in intricate interplay in the centre with the likes of Bellingham and Bradley Dack, and has even occupied territory on the left that’s normally the domain of Jack Clarke and Dennis Cirkin.
In addition, he maintains an impressive defensive work rate, frequently tracking back and avoiding giving away the needless fouls that he once conceded.
As well as winning tackles, he’s also winning aerial duels and using his anticipation to make timely interceptions. Whenever Ekwah joins the attack, Neil slots effortlessly back into the holding position.
Still only twenty one but with almost fifty Championship appearances under his belt, Neil is now developing into the complete midfielder. The obvious skills of other players may attract the eye more easily but, in the engine room, it’s Neil who is making the team tick.
To repeat what I said at the start of this piece, he is, in my view, our most important and influential player.