The Sunderland transfer deal that didn’t happen as Dan Neil’s importance is highlighted in Middlesbrough loss

Sunderland boss Tony Mowbray wanted to reinforce the side’s central midfield options during the summer transfer window.

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When Dan Neil was shown a second yellow card and subsequently sent off on the stroke of half-time against Middlesbrough, Sunderland boss Tony Mowbray had an obvious problem.

Not only would his side have to play the second half with a numerical disadvantage, yet the lack of a natural replacement for the 21-year-old midfielder left the Black Cats’ backline even more exposed during a 4-0 defeat.

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Neil has started all 11 league fixtures for Sunderland this term, while taking on more defensive responsibilities following Pierre Ekwah’s injury setback last month.

Neil and Ekwah showed at the end of last season and start of this campaign they provide a strong partnership in the side’s engine room. Still, the lack of options behind them is a concern.

With Jay Matete and Corry Evans, who are not expected to return anytime soon, also sidelined with injuries, Jobe Bellingham has dropped into a deeper midfield role alongside Neil in recent weeks. Mowbray admitted during the summer transfer window he wanted another experienced option for that position, yet a move didn’t materialise.

Against Middlesbrough, the Black Cats boss opted to bring on Adil Aouchiche, who appears more suited to playing as an attacking midfielder, in place of Mason Burstow at half-time. It prompted a change of shape to a 5-3-1 system, with Aouchiche operating alongside Bellingham and Patrick Roberts in midfield.

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Of course it was always going to be tough playing with 10 men, yet Middlesbrough quickly took control in the second half, scoring two goals in quick succession after some last-ditch defending from the hosts.

Neil’s importance to this Sunderland side was highlighted even more when he wasn’t on the pitch. The midfielder adapted well last season to play in the deeper No 6 role after Evans’ ACL injury in January, while he is quickly becoming an all-round midfielder who has attracted interest from Premier League clubs.

The 22-year-old will now serve a one-game suspension for Sunderland’s trip to Stoke after the international break, when Mowbray will hope Ekwah is ready to return and fill the midfield void. Still, it’s an area of the pitch where Sunderland are lacking depth and natural alternatives just 11 games into a long campaign.