A point salvaged against Burton does get us back into the play off places. However, we still languish second bottom of the form table going into our hardest away game of the season against Wigan.
Our form, as everyone knows, is far from ideal. Saturday represents a huge test for Alex Neil. For his first game he had 40 minutes with the team, now he has had two more games with the lads in which we have managed to get a single point from an available 6. That being said, despite the fact we are Sunderland in League One, we have to acknowledge that Milton Keynes Dons are playing better than us at the moment are higher placed. It’s a depressing fact, but we have to accept they are currently a better team and we could’ve won the game, had things panned out slightly different.
By our recent standards, there were some relatively encouraging signs within the first half against Burton. We showed some functionality for the first time in a while and we can gather that Neil wants Pritchard to be the main man going forward. This is all very depressing to write, this straw clutching to find positives. Finding positives in an aberration of a result is what we have been reduced to. At the moment, it’s like we are watching a Sunderland side through some kind of prism of mediocrity, the convex shape of which reflects back a distorted version of our club, one in which we are playing like a team second bottom of League One. The same players who performed well months ago when we were in the top three, at the moment, look like they would struggle to get a game for the Morecambe team we beat 5-0.
Positives are slim. Everyone wanted Defoe to start, which is fine. I was eager to see what he could do and I’m sure his movement will result in a goal sooner or later. But here I am being sentimental and realistically, Neil was putting out a man who is unable to finish a game, a player we have no adequate replacement for off the bench. When we are chasing a game, the inverse of what we should be doing is bringing a striker off, but the recruitment has been such that we have few options from the bench like for like. Instead, Jack Clarke, our on-loan winger, played up top.
We have struggled bridging the gap between midfield and attack recently and even though the man didn’t score goals, Aiden O’Brien performed this function in the side reasonably well. It is key that this inability to get the ball to our attackers, whether Stewart or Defoe, is resolved at the weekend. When your 6 ft 2 centre forward is running the channels trying to get the ball, something isn’t right.
Presumably, we cannot play the same starting at the weekend. For me, if Batth is fit we must revert to the three at the back which has served us well this season. Our defence is criminally slow, but if we have three centre halves we are more likely to hold off Wigan’s attack. Evans has to be dropped with Matete filling in Evans’s ‘role’ in the team and we could also reintroduce Trai Hume, who for some reason wasn’t on the bench on Tuesday. Perhaps he is injured, then we are pretty restricted, with only one full back in the entire squad. A back four, on the road, has led to some humiliating defeats against Rotherham, Sheff Wed and latterly Bolton, but, to be honest, I am not sure if we will, we just can’t play a back three as effectively as before without Flanagan.
Speakman has essentially knackered us and Neil has the difficult job of tinkering with the team dynamic to try and get any result at the weekend. Perhaps we would’ve been in a better position, form and morale wise, if Neil had got the job straight away and we could go into this with a bit more optimism. We are the league’s most dysfunctional side and this is because of Speakman and co. Despite this, if we get a decent result at the weekend, perhaps this will be the turning point. With a decent run of games, the play offs look very possible.
Wigan are having a brilliant season. They were in a similar position this summer to us in terms of squad depth, but actually had even fewer players than us before the seasons start. They have found a way of grinding out results, with a penchant for scoring late goals and could easily finish this season top of the league. It is imperative that the team perform for those 5,000 plus supporters making the journey down, avoiding a repeat of our collapse against their local ‘rivals’ Bolton.
This is a fixture they will be relishing, looking at our form, but hopefully we can get our season back on track with a surprise win. Things might get better soon, with McGeady, O’Nien and Broadhead returning in Mrach. Hopefully this is us getting our inevitable bad run out of our system and we will finish the season strongly, instead of imploding as usual. If we can get to the play offs, our new manager might take us up as he has done at Norwich and Hamilton. We have to keep the faith, even if the faith is blind.