Should Alex Neil not have been appointed when he was and managed to turn the Sunderland season around, the Black Cats may not be currently planning for a trip to Wembley. The Black Cats have a date with Wycombe Wanderers in the League One play-off final, however, before Neil’s appointment, Sunderland were in poor form and conceding goals at an alarming rate. At this point, Wembley was but a distant dream.
Alex Neil Deserves Credit for Way he Has Turned the Sunderland Season Around
Alex Neil has had 17 games in charge at Sunderland. Just one defeat in that time has been a huge factor in the Black Cats’ run to Wembley. Neil’s only defeat so far came in his second game in charge, therefore, his Sunderland team are currently enjoying a 15-game undefeated streak.
Prior to the streak beginning, Sunderland were in poor form. Just one win in nine, including a 6-0 defeat at Bolton Wanderers saw the club sack Lee Johnson and eventually bring in the former Norwich City manager Neil. His first three games brought just two points but once the streak began, the team have become impossible to beat.
Made the Team a Tougher Opposition
When Neil arrived just before the game at AFC Wimbledon on February 12, Sunderland had hit a poor patch of form. 17 goals were conceded in just seven games since the new year had begun. However, once he installed into the players his methods and the way he wanted them to play, the Black Cats became a different proposition.
In his 17 games in charge, eight have seen a clean sheet for young goalkeeper Anthony Patterson who has become a regular under the new head coach. 12 goals have been conceded, however, this shows the turnaround the team has made under Neil.
During these 17 games, Sunderland have started to make a habit of scoring very late goals, often to secure vital points. In nine games the Black Cats have produced when it was vital. A Patrick Roberts late goal at Sheffield Wednesday secured a play-off final place and a late goal at Oxford United claimed a vital three points in April. Late home goals have also become normal. 14 points have been gained due to late goals securing victory or a vital draw. Neil’s Sunderland side will battle to the end and those deciding to leave the ground early are in danger of missing out.
Head Coach Not Afraid to Make Changes
Alex Neil has not been afraid to change tactics, formations, or personnel depending on the opposition. A back four and five have been seen depending on the opposition threat level as have the number of forward players depending on weaknesses.
Speaking early in his reign as Sunderland’s head coach, Neil spoke about how he would adapt his team should he feel it would give them the best chance of winning. As quoted by the Sunderland Echo, he said: “The simple fact is that at times I’m not here to please people, I’m here to win games and earn points, so what I have to do is come up with a strategy that is going to give us the best chance of winning the game.
“There will be certain games where I think that we’re better suited to a back three, and others where we’re better suited to a back four. It will depend on who we are playing as to how we try to approach it, what we think our strengths are going to be in the game, and what the opposition’s weaknesses are going to be, and try to make sure we make the most of them.
“We will probably play a different style to the play Sunderland have done recently. I’m a bit more pragmatic and I don’t like passing the ball for passing the ball’s sake – the ball needs to be worked forward.”
Nominated for April Manager of the Month
Ultimately won by Wycombe’s Gareth Ainsworth, Neil’s recognition was deserved. Both managers went through April undefeated and both teams accumulated 17 points. However, it was Ainsworth that got the decision due to his team beating play-off rivals Plymouth Argyle and Sheffield Wednesday to help claim a play-off place on the final day of the season.
Sunderland fans will now be hoping that the manager of the month award jinx extends to Ainsworth and his team. It has been seen many times that when a manager wins the award, they are beaten in their next game.
Wembley Bound as Sunderland Season End Edges Closer
Sunderland defeated Sheffield Wednesday over two legs to book their place at Wembley. Almost 45,000 packed into the Stadium of Light for the first game, a new record attendance for an EFL play-off semi-final, and saw their team unlucky to only win by one goal to nil.
The return game at Hillsborough saw another big crowd with over 32,000 in attendance. The home side took a second-half lead but Sunderland like they have done so many times scored a late goal to secure their place in the final at Wembley.
The Black Cats have not enjoyed their previous play-off finals at Wembley, losing in each one, however, Alex Neil is not concerned by this and believes the fans will not be thinking about the past ahead of the final. He told the Sunderland Echo: “I don’t think our fans will think that [not again] one bit. The belief they’ve got (the fans) in this team, the run that we’ve been on, the fact that we keep scoring late goals and coming back.
“The determination that we have in this group, I think our fans believe in this team and believe that we’ll go to Wembley and do everything we can to win the game.
“I’ll be confident and they’ll be confident, but we know that we need to go and deliver. Wycombe are a difficult team, I watched them on Sunday night and they dig in, they grind and they do everything to get a result. We’re going to have to do likewise.
“What we’ve done is given ourselves an opportunity now.”
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