Alex Neil explains exactly why Sunderland captain Corry Evans is such an important part of his side
Alex Neil says Corry Evans has been a 'very good' performer as he opened up on the midfielder's importance to the balance of his side.
Evans was named by Lee Johnson as team captain at the start of the season and though his place in the starting XI has at times been a source of contention given the other creative midfielders pushing for a place, Neil has picked him in all but his first game since taking charge.
Sunderland's defensive record has been steadily improving under Neil and the head coach says Evans is a central part of that, particularly when it comes to his role in preventing the opposition from executing counter attacks.
"I've walked in the building with no exposure to what's happened previously, no pre-conceptions as to what's gone on, and judged purely on what I've seen in front of me," Neil said.
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"From what I've seen in front of me, Corry Evans has been very good for us.
"There have been a couple of games at home, and this aimed very much at us as a team and not just Corry, have not moved the ball [as well] and been as good as we'd have liked.
"But I think that in certain games he has performed very well, and on Saturday he was excellent for us. Every time they tried to counter, he snuffed it out at source. And sometimes you don't see that from the outside because when it's a structural thing, if you're in the right place at the right time, you don't then need to rush back and make a tackle. You don't need to cover ground and nick the ball off someone, because every time the ball comes out he mops up with ease and keeps recycling the ball.
"At Lincoln he was always available for the ball, and they're the bits that can go a little but unnoticed. At this stage of this season, that experience and know how with the external pressure that's on the team, that calming influence can be really important."
Sunderland's significant defensive improvements, which have yielded five clean sheets in the last six games, have allowed Neil to place more focus on his team's attacking threat.
However, he has been clear that he will continue to adjust his tactics from week to week depending on the strengths of the opposition.
"Since we've been a bit more defensively solid I've focused more on how we build and what our rotations look like at the top end," Neil said.
"Against Gillingham for example, our full backs were quite cautious in the first half, so we spoke about hitting the byline more and that changed the dynamic of the game.
"Particularly when Goochy came on, he did that three or four times, hung a couple of crosses up to the back post and cut one across for Ross where the defender makes a good cross.
"We doubled up down the sides much better, hence the reason why we made better chances.
"So it's definitely been a point of focus, however every single game in this division is a different challenge. This game is going to very different, so our focus has been different again this week."