Sunderland’s weakness on the bench is a major headache for Alex Neil

Graeme Atkinson takes a look at Sunderland's start so far and how a lack of strength in reserve is costing the Black Cats dearly

“I don’t have a like-for-like where I can put him in there if someone’s tiring, and there’s not much I can do about that.”

Alex Neil’s post match comments were characteristically to the point.

Still, there was plenty to enjoy about Saturday’s 2-2 draw against QPR. Sunderland AFC was for large parts of the game the better side and it’s reassuring that we look to be a competitive force in the very early stages of the campaign.

But, even a day or two later, it is difficult not feel a little aggrieved about the weekend’s result, especially given the score-line on the 86th minute. However, that disappointment does not stem from the players’ performance or their levels of commitment. To be fair, apart from midweek against Sheffield Wednesday, both have been first rate thus far; instead the regret is that, as Neil himself admits, he is currently unable to positively affect games from the bench.

Once that first XI’s race is run it is difficult for him to make changes to strengthen the side. 

Instead, through a lack of viable options, Neil’s tinkering is restricted more to containment than anything else. Perhaps it was because of a lack of depth on the bench that he elected to switch to a back four against QPR.

Either way it meant shuffling Luke O’Nien, who up until that point had been the emergency centre back, into midfield. From those players at his disposal the challenge became about trying to find a round peg for the metaphorical round hole.

Indeed, bringing O’Nien on to replace the injured Dan Ballard in the first place seemed upon first blush to be a head-scratcher.

It is fair to say the former Wycombe Wanderers man has not immediately adjusted well to the second tier. By slotting him into a centre back role after seven minutes, a position he has not played since partnering Dion Sanderson in League One, collective hearts were presumably in mouths.

It may have surprised some supporters then that O’Nien conducted himself admirably at the back. Although to be fair to him he has always played his best games in defence where the game is in front of him and less technical work is required.

And, hearing Neil provide his rationale for electing to introduce the midfielder when he did, even with two centre backs on the bench, made absolute sense. In essence, O’Nien is currently the only mobile player in the group capable of playing right of a three. Bailey Wright would be the natural replacement for Danny Batth and Aji Alese for Dennis Cirkin.

So, as the squad is not yet fully formed and still lacks strength in depth, Neil is left to ponder – does he leave the best player suited for the position on the pitch even though they are exhausted or does he bring the fresher man on but one who is less capable in that role?

A quandary indeed.

Like Coventry at home, the R’s by the latter stages of the second half looked to be in the ascendancy, and whereas other established teams in this league are able to introduce players to inject new threats onto the opposition, with added quality, Neil does not yet have the luxury of being able to do the same.

The Scot also acknowledged last week that he considers the squad’s current best form of defence is attack and we will be left more open at times as a result. Whether this is a temporary opinion based on the existing group or a sign of things to come this season is not yet clear.

What is apparent though, as the season has already shown us, it may prove a risky strategy. As has been pointed out to this writer recently, since 2007 the Rokermen have conceded two or more goals a total of 268 times and have only won 17 of those matches. Therefore, as a general rule, the club has not prospered when conceding more than one goal a game. Neil will need to buck the trend if fortunes are to change with that particular approach. 

Of course, as he has already proven, Neil is certainly capable.

And, if we take a broader look at results to date, the Black Cats have enjoyed a positive start to life back in the Championship. We should not lose sight of this amongst the detail. At 2-0 on Saturday the Lads were top of the league and if it was a blast hearing the Roker End enjoying that moment, even if it was fleeting and sung with some humour.

Based upon these early games it is clear that with four or five quality additions (Dan Ballard may be a long term absence which might impact upon numbers required) there is no reason why Sunderland AFC cannot enjoy a solid return to the Championship. Alex Neil is quite clearly the best manager the club has employed for some time and if he is given the tools success will surely follow.

Over to Kristjaan Speakman now to help ensure this is possible.