What we learnt in Alex Neil's first game as Sunderland boss ahead of MK Dons clash

Alex Neil didn’t try to gloss over what was an underwhelming performance.

Monday, 14th February 2022, 4:54 pm

“You have a lot of lads in their first year and at the minute, a lot of them look tired,” said the new Sunderland boss in his candid post-match press conference following a 1-1 draw at AFC Wimbledon.

"Ultimately, we haven't got a huge of amount of options so that's something I need to have a good look at.”

Neil has come in at a time when this side appears to be running out of steam, following a promising start to the campaign, but what can he do to revive a promotion challenge?

Carl Winchester played in midfield for Sunderland against AFC Wimbledon. Picture by FRANK REID

After losing significant ground on the automatic promotion places, Neil’s initial task is to restore some much-needed confidence for the final 14 games – with a spot in the play-off increasingly looking like the best-case scenario.

Neil has been appointed to prompt an immediate reaction, yet there is little margin for error with just over a quarter of the season remaining.

Carl Winchester’s new role

Neil made three changes to the side which lost 2-1 at Cheltenham last time out, and most notably altered the team’s shape to a 4-1-2-3 system.

That meant Carl Winchester was recalled, but to play as a holding midfield player, while captain Corry Evans dropped to the bench.

Further forward Dan Neil and Jay Matete were deployed as box-to-box midfielders, with the latter catching the eye.

Matete, 21, only joined Sunderland from Fleetwood last month but looks set to be a key player for the run in.

The midfielder’s willingness to receive and run with the ball should prove invaluable in a side which has looked jaded in recent weeks.

A need to adapt?

During a challenging point in the season Sunderland have also found it tougher to press teams and get in opponents’ faces.

The view from Preston was that Neil’s North End side played an ‘aggressive pressing’ game ‘with plenty of movement up front’ during his first season at Deepdale.

Yet, while Sunderland have lots of creative players, they have struggled to find an effective combination to support top scorer Ross Stewart recently.

Whether Neil can make the necessary adjustments midway through a season to deploy such a high-octane style remains to be seen. He may have to adapt in the short term.

A tactical change

After a disjointed start to the second half at Wimbledon, Sunderland were starting to come under pressure again.

Yet Neil showed he wasn’t afraid to change his side’s shape midway through a match - when the score was level - as he made a double substitution just after the hour mark.

Evans and Jermain Defoe replaced Winchester and Jack Clarke, as the visitors switched to a diamond in midfield.

That allowed Defoe and Stewart to play up front together, albeit briefly, before the latter was withdrawn to make way for Patrick Roberts.

While the changes didn’t have the desired effect, it showed Neil is prepared to make bold decisions at important moments.