Alex Neil’s exit to Stoke and where it leaves Sunderland: Inside an encouraging but frustrating Norwich loss

Upon arrival at the Stadium of Light around two hours before kick-off, it was still unclear who would take charge for Sunderland’s Championship match against Norwich City.

Head coach Alex Neil had left the Black Cats’ training ground on Friday morning to finalise a move to Stoke. His assistant Martin Canning is expected to join the Scot at the bet365 Stadium, but remained on Wearside to oversee the Canaries fixture, along with coaches Mike Dodds, Michael Proctor and Alessandro Barcherini.

On paper it may have appeared a daunting task, facing the pre-season promotion favourites live on Sky and potentially rudderless following Neil’s unexpected departure.

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Instead what we saw was a spirited Sunderland display, full of energy, invention and high pressing football.

Sunderland striker Ross Stewart and Norwich City goalkeeper Tim Krul.

Ross Stewart saw a shot tipped onto the crossbar by goalkeeper Tim Krul, while Ellis Simms’ header rebounded off the post. Alex Pritchard’s close-range effort was cleared off the line, while Corry Evans saw two powerful strikes blocked inside the penalty area.

How Sunderland didn’t score is still hard to fathom.

Yet while chants from the Roker End made it clear Neil was no longer wanted, the Scot’s absence didn’t derail the side.

Neil, who was instead at Ewood Park watching Stoke’s 1-0 win over Blackburn, had prepared the Sunderland team in the week leading up to this match, right up until Friday morning before saying his goodbyes, and the team selection reflected that.

Sunderland continued to operate with the back three and wing-backs system that Neil has used to match opponents up this season, even if Norwich lined up with a 4-3-3 set-up.

The use of Luke O’Nien, who was a contender for man of the match, as a right sided centre-back gave the side more mobility at the back to defend against visitors’ runs in behind.

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There were times when Dean Smith’s side managed to beat Sunderland’s aggressive press, providing space for forwards Josh Sargent and Onel Hernandez to try and exploit.

Yet more often than not, it was the Black Cats creating chances for themselves, winning the ball back in advanced positions and not allowing their opponents to play out.

That is the style Sunderland want to implement no matter who is in charge, and they will now look for a new head coach who meets their requirements.

While Neil’s departure will provide an obvious setback, Sunderland’s desired structure should be able to cope with such eventualities.

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Following Lee Johnson’s sacking in January, Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman said the club had been ‘tracking coaches over the last year’ as part of their succession plan.

And while it then took 13 days to appoint Neil during a turbulent fortnight on and off the pitch, you would hope lessons have been learnt.

The difference this time is that it’s been the head coach’s decision to depart, with another club making a more lucrative offer to prize him away.

That is the risk Sunderland will have to accept if they are recruiting young players and coaches whose stock can rise quickly.

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On the pitch that has bore fruit in recent months following the club’s promotion to the Championship and initial step up to the second tier. Still, there will be vultures watching, especially after performances like this.

While chances ultimately weren’t taken, Sunderland did more than enough to beat a club which was competing in the Premier League last season, and were tipped by many as the pre-season promotion favourites.

In the Canaries midfield Chile international Marcelino Nunez was pressed and harried, particularly by Dan Neil, as the visitors struggled to click. With another large home crowd behind them, Sunderland kept coming.

Still, Norwich is a club which has won the Championship title in two of the last four years and still possess the spine of a promotion-winning team.

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The experience of captain Hanley and goalkeeper Krul was particularly important as the visitor weathered the storm. Another key factor was the strength of the Canaries’ bench.

Not only were they able to replace injured midfielder Liam Gibbs with full-back Sam Byram, a player with over 100 Championship appearances, in the 20th minute – a move which saw Kenny McLean move from defence into midfield – but Smith was also able to make an offensive triple change on the hour mark.

Off came Hernandez, Kieran Dowell and Danel Sinani, as Teemu Pukki, Todd Cantwell and Aaron Ramsey, a 19-year-old on loan from Aston Villa, took their places.

That gave Norwich a lift as the game entered a lull. In comparison, Sunderland were once again without a recognised striker among their seven substitutes.

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It wasn't until the 77th minute, just after Sargent had converted Ramsey’s low cross for Norwich’s winner, when Elliot Embleton replaced Pritchard for the Black Cats’ first change. Patrick Roberts, who was later introduced, and Jack Diamond were the only other attacking players to choose from.

As has been clear for the last few weeks, a couple of injuries could leave this squad seriously depleted and multiple signings are needed before next week’s transfer deadline.

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Neil will have had his say when it came to the club’s list of targets and recruitment, yet the structure in place means any new signings are now made on a collective decision.

The head coach’s voice has now been taken out of that equation as Sunderland look to appoint Neil’s successor, while still looking to bring in players who fit the desired criteria.

While the timing could hardly be more challenging, it’s been reiterated the Black Cats are aiming to create a sustainable model which doesn’t just revolve around one individual.

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Sunderland’s performance against Norwich may not have been visibly impacted by the lack of a head coach, yet Neil’s abrupt departure will really put that model to the test.