Sunderland AFC Match Preview – Sold out away end for Alex Neil’s biggest test

Jonny Lambert previews Saturday's trip to Wigan Athletic

After a run of fixtures that you’d ordinarily fancy for us for a feast of points in, we now have the fixtures we don’t want, and it’s Wigan Athletic away.

Now, outsiders may look at the table taking into account previous meetings between the two sides and think, this is a setup to be a close game. But, as Alex Neil says, there is very little relevance in Sunderland’s previous two wins over the Latics this season, and we cannot argue with that.

The opening day encounter saw a brand-new Wigan team pieced together against a strong and fit Sunderland side only really missing a natural left back. Despite going 1-0 down the lads quickly fired back just moments later when Aiden McGeady slotted home a penalty in front of the Roker End. Shortly into the second half Ross Stewart leapt highest to nod in what turned out to be the winner on the day, getting the lads off to a crucial winning start.

We then went to the DW Stadium a month later in the third road of the Carabao Cup, where both teams elected to play their second strings. I was fortunate enough to be there on the night and left brimming with optimism of what our young side looked capable of, and had early faith in the new recruitment regime (mug, I know). With Frederik Alves, Dennis Cirkin, Leon Dajaku, Nathan Broadhead and Alex Pritchard all new faces over the summer (some late into August) starting, there was a real energy and fearless approach to the encounter.

But it was young right back Niall Huggins for me that was the star on the night, up and back with more energy than the Duracell bunny, he caused mayhem. This was amplified by the work and bit of quality he showed to setup Luke O’Nien for the second goal, running tirelessly off the ball to show himself in the good old POMO area. His long term loss through a stress fracture to the back has been critical to the balance of the team ever since.

So, we had another good month before the dreaded November shit show, a decent December which saw Manager of the Month honours, then utter capitulation in 2022 with only an uninspired win over Portsmouth to our name. Now, whilst all this was going on Wigan were quietly galvanising as a group and picking up steady points and moving up the table. Not even losing Charlie Wyke long term hasn’t halted their progress, we wish you well Charlie.

They then became a victim of the dreaded Covid postponements, mainly by virtue of their opposition, but have since pulled a run of results together which now see them as automatic promotion favourites alongside Rotherham United.

It’s no secret that Wigan had intentions of promotion this season as chairman and owner Talal Al Hammad splashed the cash in the summer, which included a smash and grab on Sunderland players of 2020/21 Charlie Wyke, Max Power and Jordan Jones. They also brought back former Sunderland (and Wigan) winger James McLean, and made attempts to sign Bailey Wright.

The squad certainly seems more League One relevant with strength, physicality, and promotion pedigree in their ranks, and they have definitely be coping well with the two game weeks and cup commitments to date. There were signs in late January where the games started to look like they were taking their toll, with draws against Cheltenham and Oxford, a cup defeat to Stoke City before a league loss to Sheffield Wednesday. But they pulled it back together and have since churned out three wins and a respectable draw away at league leaders Rotherham.

Wigan generally play the popular 4-2-3-1 formation, with Callum Lang and Will Keane as the main goal threats, having notched 31 goals between them. The Latics have also made a canny January signing of striker Josh McGennis from Championship side Hull City, who although not prolific, did have a decent return during Hull’s 2020/21 promotion season. Max Power will be looking to shithouse the centre of midfield, so his battle with Jay Matete could be pivotal on the day.

For the lads Alex Neil has suggested that Trai Hume, who was left out for a more attacking option on the bench the other night, has to be managed as he lacks senior games at the tender age of 19. That may seem a little ironic as Callum Doyle, Dennis Cirkin and Dan Neil are all of a similar age and still being put through their paces, but maybe the gaffer is trying to avoid history repeating itself on his watch.

Neil also made reference to Arbenit Xhemajli and that the Swiss centre back also lacks game time with only nine U23 games in 16 months to his name. That is a fair point however all those games have happened in the last couple of months, and it’s been noted by Neil that Arby has been training well.

For me the formation is a no-brainer – when we play five at the back, we don’t lose, that’s an absolute fact of this season. What counters this is the amount of wingers we now have at our disposal and enabling them to all have an impact during the game.

If Neil is brave, he’d use a Dajaku or Lynden Gooch at left wing back, as Cirkin now appears a spent force. He could also utilise Carl Winchester at right wing back, if he doesn’t have faith in Trai Hume. There are no suspensions and no new injury worries, but we are still without Huggins, McGeady and Luke O’Nien for the time being.

The good news is Nathan Broadhead is back at the Academy of Light and training in Sunderland colours. He won’t feature tomorrow, but is hopefully in the mix for our trip to Charlton.

For the lads, they’ll back backed by another sold out away end, but for once the whole ground could be close to capacity as Wigan have decided to donate two free tickets to every season ticket holder. Well that’s one way of filling your ground.

Although the lads’ form is hard to stomach, at the very least against Wigan, the muscle memory is successful. This will be a real test of how well Alex Neil can motivate his players, get the tactics right on the day, and ultimately have courage in his convictions of getting the necessary points to get out of this division.

As I walk out of the DW Stadium at full time tomorrow, I hope I’m as happy as I was when I did in late September.. it’s over to you Sunderland, ha’way the lads!