Resilience – The special ingredient Alex Neil’s Sunderland have in abundance

Graeme Atkinson takes a look at the transformation in Sunderland since Alex Neil took charge

Resilience. Alex Neil’s Sunderland AFC has resilience.

It is of course relatively early days in his tenure. It would be foolish to overplay what the longer-term impact may yet be, but 15 matches are surely sufficient to form a general view. In that period patterns begin to emerge both good and bad and it is possible to form some preliminary opinions.

And that opinion of Neil, as a head coach thus far, has to be overwhelmingly positive. He has turned a fragile team into a more resilient one. Replacing brittleness with hardiness.

Since arriving at the club on a 12-month rolling contract in February 2022, the Scot quickly began making tactical changes to his inherited squad. Alterations, which it must be said, have proved to be for the better, especially in shoring things up at the back.

In fact, as the Black Cats embark on another attempt to secure promotion from this hellhole of a division the hard way, it is this newfound robust spirit which this time around may hold the key to play-off success.

If we take a look at a few stats it does not take long to see how Neil’s strategic tweaks have manifested positive change.

At the beginning of February Sunderland AFC’s defensive record was appalling.

There can be no other way of dressing it up – a sorry sight indeed with the Black Cats, in respect of goals against, sitting 15th in the table overall. Away from home, matters were worse as they fell to second bottom. The Lads had shipped 16 more goals when compared to the season prior at around the same time too.

What does that tell us? Well, without wishing to state the obvious, they were far from the finished article and with that defensive frailty, far, far from securing automatic promotion.

Why? Irrespective of Sunderland lying third in League One at that point evidence over the three previous seasons showed us that no other side had managed automatic promotion when more than 42 goals were conceded across the campaign. By early February, the Wearsiders had already leaked 39. As such, perhaps with reference to automatic places, the damage was already done even as some sides above began to stutter as the season concluded.

Therefore, in many respects it is testament to Neil’s methods that playoffs were achieved at all.

As we know Sunderland AFC finished fifth in the league on the last day. The goal against tally? It was 53. Only eight teams fared better. Given Lee Johnson managed to engineer a game plan which conceded six goals in one game, Neil’s men have only picked the ball from their own net a total of 14 more times since his arrival – a staggering achievement and a remarkable turnaround.

How do our play-off opponents fair when judged by the same metric? Sheffield Wednesday conceded 50 goals, as the weekend’s results came to a conclusion. Three better.

In contrast, their defensive record has been largely more stable but one noteworthy point highlights that they have also been known to be lax at defending set-pieces. A game against Accrington Stanley was a prime example. Dead ball situations may be something that Neil will wish to exploit, especially with Alex Pritchard, Aiden McGeady and Elliott Embleton et al at his disposal.

Defensive solidity should not take all the plaudits here, it must be said. It has been rewarding to see that resilience also take the shape of late goals. Of the 15 matches Neil has been in charge, eight goals have come following the 85th minute. Another crucial factor to improvements seen in recent times.

All in all, it could be said this is a different Sunderland side that face Sheffield Wednesday on Friday than the one inherited by Alex Neil. The personnel remain the same, yet going into the playoffs in form, with some much needed resilience feels an altogether more promising prospect than had we been embarking on this period with Lee Johnson’s hand still on the tiller. Why?

Resilience. Yes, Alex Neil’s Sunderland AFC has resilience.