Dennis Cirkin explains how his role has changed at Sunderland under Alex Neil and the improvements he’s made

Dennis Cirkin says he learned a great deal in his first season as a Sunderland player while his role in the side has changed under Alex Neil.

The 20-year-old full-back signed for the Black Cats from Tottenham last summer and made 37 League One appearances during the 2021/22 campaign.

Cirkin didn’t make a senior appearance for Spurs after coming through the ranks in North London and impressing at youth level with his club and for England.

When Neil arrived at Sunderland in February, the defender was predominantly deployed in a back three as the Black Cats head coach looked to tighten things up at the back.

Dennis Cirkin playing for Sunderland in pre-season. Picture by Frank Reid

Five months later it seems like the Scot is telling his full-backs to make more offensive runs, with Neil often deploying his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation in pre-season.

“I think it changes every game depending on the other team,” Cirkin told the Echo when asked about his attacking instructions.

“I think tactically it has changed a lot for me so I’m seeing a lot more different things, positive and negative as well, depending on the position.

“I think getting forward is definitely something the gaffer wants me to do and I feel like it can come from me as well.

“Doing both sides of the game and just pushing myself is what I’m trying to do this pre-season so I’m ready for it.”

He added: “Last season when the new gaffer came in I think I solidified the other side of the game, the defending, so locking the ball in and working hard off the ball.

“That’s something I’m trying to build on this pre-season as well is just going forward with the ball because I know it will be important in the Championship as well.”

Sunderland’s 2021/22 campaign ended on a huge high as Cirkin helped the Black Cats win promotion from League One in the play-off final at Wembley.

Asked about the biggest things he learnt last term, the defender replied: “Just keep going.

“You can’t dwell on anything, especially as you saw we had massive highs and then massive lows, a change of manager.

“There were a lot of things that went wrong and well but at the end of it we won at Wembley and that was probably one of the best days of my life.”

Cirkin also says there is a renewed confidence in the squad after their strong end to last season, with the group preparing to step up to the Championship.

“Obviously this is my first proper pre-season at Sunderland because I missed a little bit last season,” Cirkin added. “I’ve been happy with how it’s gone so far.

“We’ve set out every game to win, obviously it doesn’t happen all the time but we have definitely got that winning mentality now.”

Sunderland are less than a week away from their Championship opener against Coventry at the Stadium of Light, with a bumper crowd set to attend the match on Wearside.

"I just can’t wait now to be honest,” replied Cirkin, with a smile on his face, when asked about the upcoming fixture.

“It will be good to return home as well because it’s been so long. I’m excited.”