As we head into our final six games of the season it can be difficult to know what to make of the current situation at Sunderland.
We currently sit seventh in the league, have a totally unbalanced squad and face the prospect of spending a fifth successive season in League One.
Despite this grim state of affairs, most fans are firmly behind the manager and have faith in his medium-term ability to finally get us out of this division, a prospect that would have seemed unthinkable if you’d proposed this scenario as we topped the table just before the new year.
To add to the confusion, performances and results have overtly shown little correlation, a 3-1 home win over Fleetwood Town was described as the worst one of his sides have ever played and still emerged victorious by Alex Neil.
Just days later we laboured for long parts of a 2-0 success, yet dominated away games to Charlton Athletic and Lincoln without finding a breakthrough.
Although Saturday’s win over Gillingham showed improvement in some areas, the lads struggled to create many clear cut chances and only a late Nathan Broadhead goal prevented us from dropping vital points.
This is not to say that I think that we have been lucky, in all three of the aforementioned home games we did have the better chances and the determination amongst the players has been admirable. But too often at home we have failed to take a game by the scruff of the neck early on.
Neil undoubtedly deserves great credit for his subs with his substitutions making crucial contributions in all of our home wins under his management so far, but this in itself is something of a paradox and can lead to some questions surrounding some of his starting lineups.
For what it’s worth, I have been a big fan of Neil’s work since he arrived at the club. I believe that despite there being obvious reasons to be pessimistic about our chances, if I had to nail my colours to the mast I think there’s a strong chance that we will make it in the play-offs and even win them.
Again, there would be a certain irony in Sunderland achieving promotion when only a month or so previously it felt like the club was at a new low, even by League One standards and fan morale was on the floor.
However, it cannot be denied that there have been some big improvements in recent weeks, especially from a defensive perspective.
I don’t want to tempt fate but I can’t see an Alex Neil Sunderland side losing 3-0, 4-0, 5-1 and 6-0 over the course of a season.
Indeed since the Scotsman came in, we have conceded just five goals in nine games including just one in our last six.
This stat is all the more impressive when you consider that during that period we have rarely enjoyed the luxury of a settled backline.
Anthony Patterson has also grown into the number one position and has gone from looking like a quivering wreck to a commanding presence and his game management has shown maturity beyond his years.
Neil has also managed to plug our biggest weakness in stopping the back four from being exposed on a regular basis.
In his second game in charge, MK Dons carved us wide open for both their goals in a continuation of the defensive shape or lack of under Lee Johnson.
Now when we lose possession we have a solid enough base to stop teams from transitioning from defence into attack at breakneck speed which allows us to assert more control on games.
Although O’Nien and Corey Evans are certainly limited in their impact on games from an attacking perspective, their defensive work has given us the foundation to grind out recent results.
This potentially stands us in good stead as we embark on our final six games, in which we play three of the current top eight.
Neil has already demonstrated in our 3-0 triumph over Wigan that he is more than capable of setting us up well in one-off games and against teams who will look to enjoy more possession and get on the front foot.
Naturally, the likes of Plymouth, Oxford and Rotherham will leave more gaps for us to exploit in pursuit of three points in stark contrast to the likes of Crewe, Gillingham and Crewe who may as well have begun time wasting during the warm up.
This will suit our key attacking players such as Partick Roberts and Jack Clarke who will have more space to carry the ball rather than having to toil away against defences who are camped in their own half.
Having the option to rotate the likes of Jay Matete, Corry Evans, Luke O’Nien and Dan Neil further strengthens our chances during the run in. Depending on the state of play in the final 20 minutes we have the option of either solidifying the centre of the park or bringing on more creative players to get us on the front foot and exploit gaps in the opposition.
Of course, I may look like a fool in the coming weeks and could potentially finish in Wise Men Say’s favourite position of eighth, but I firmly believe with the foundations we have laid in recent weeks – combined with Alex Neil’s game management – we can cement our play-off position this month.