Alex Neil explains the biggest Sunderland weakness he had to address to try and match Rotherham and Wigan

Alex Neil says Sunderland’s poor defensive record became his biggest priority after joining the club.

While the Black Cats were fourth in League One when Neil was appointed in February, they had conceded the most goals out of the division’s top 11 sides.

Sunderland had also suffered heavy defeats against Bolton, Rotherham and Portsmouth away from home, and kept just one clean sheet in their last seven matches.

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While a place in the play-offs is far from guaranteed this season, Sunderland have conceded just once in their last five fixtures, with Neil addressing an obvious flaw.

Sunderland boss Alex Neil. Picture by FRANK REID

Speaking to the SAFC Unfiltered Podcast, the Black Cats boss said: “When you walk into a football club at any point when you are dealing with the squad and how you are going to perform, you need to focus on what the weakness is which is costing you.

“What the weakness was, in my opinion, was we had conceded the most goals in the top half of the league. When you are going for promotion from any league you can’t be conceding that many goals.

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“I think what we have seen is an improvement in that side of things. It does mean at times we are not as free-flowing as we’d like to be.

“Equally, to try and do both of these things in such a condensed period with guys who haven’t played or have played too much is really hard.

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“We have naturally got goals in the team anyway, so what I think I’ve done is fixed the defensive structure and made that better - that has allowed us a platform to go and pick up the points we have.”

Sunderland have switched from a back four to a back three in recent weeks, with Neil often changing his side’s shape to match up opponents.

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A failure to take their chances in goalless draws at Charlton and Lincoln has proved costly, yet the Black Cats have been creating opportunities to win.

“We’ve got great options going forward,” added Neil, “and that’s the bit I have focused on less because I think naturally their talent and ability will score us goals regardless.

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“Providing we get the defensive structure right then it allows us to be defensively solid, because there is no point scoring three goals if they score four.

“Don’t get me wrong there is a method in doing that, but I would argue that’s the method which we’ve approached this season.

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“The simple fact is there have been too many large defeats and for us to be competing and challenging at the top end, to concede three, four, five and six in one season is too many goals to concede.

“There is no surprise that if you look at the key factors and key stats over the course of a season as to how you get promotion, Wigan and Rotherham are in the top five for nearly every single category and we’re not.

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“What I need to do is make sure I get us into as many of the top five categories as quickly as possible and I think we are starting to get there.”

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