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Nathan Broadhead's injury, key battles for Sunderland vs Sheffield Wednesday clash plus Aiden McGeady's role: Selection dilemmas for Alex Neil

Since his arrival at Sunderland in the middle of February Alex Neil is yet to name an unchanged starting XI.

Wednesday, 4th May 2022, 12:00 pm

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The Black Cats boss has been continuously learning about the make-up of his squad during 15 games in charge, with the team, impressively, averaging exactly two points per game in that run.

While there have also been injury setbacks, Neil has often altered his team based on the strengths and weaknesses of opponents, whether that's to add more defensive security, or extra creativity to try and break teams down.

The approach he takes for Friday’s meeting with Sheffield Wednesday in the first leg of the League One play-off semi-finals will therefore be intriguing. You could argue Sunderland need to take a first-leg lead into Monday’s return leg at Hillsborough, yet Neil will also be wary of a potent opponent which won six of its last eight league games, scoring 18 goals.

Sunderland boss Alex Neil. Picture by FRANK REID

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How would Sunderland cope without Nathan Broadhead?

At the other end of the pitch Sunderland fans will hope forward Nathan Broadhead will be able to play some part over the two legs, yet the Everton loanee appears a major doubt after limping off in the first half at Morecambe last week.

Neil’s use of the 3-5-2 formation has allowed his side to play with two strikers in Broadhead and top scorer Ross Stewart, yet there isn’t a natural replacement if the former is unavailable.

If that is the case, it’s likely Sunderland will start with two playmakers to support Stewart. Alex Pritchard has been one of the first names on the team sheet when available under Neil, while Elliot Embleton, Luke O’Nien, Patrick Roberts, Jack Clarke and Aiden McGeady have also played advanced roles.

Still, Broadhead’s ability to run in behind, as well as the striker’s clinical finishing, would be sorely missed.

Who will start at wing-back?

Neil admitted last week that he has used Wednesday’s 3-5-2 formation as a blueprint when setting up his own team.

If the two sides do start with similar shapes, there will be more attention on the individual battles that presents, most notably on the flanks.

Wednesday have predominantly used Marvin Johnson and Jack Hunt as wing-back this term, players who have established themselves in those roles throughout the season. Sunderland, on the other hand, have altered their personnel in wide areas due to a lack of natural full-backs.

Lynden Gooch appears likely to occupy one of the wing-back slots, while Roberts, Clarke and even Luke O’Nien have been deployed there under Neil.

While Sunderland’s wide players will have to be aware of their defensive responsibilities, they will also have to contribute offensively to create chances for Stewart, especially if the Scot starts up front on his own.

Can Aiden McGeady contribute?

Sunderland fans will have been pleased to see Aiden McGeady return to the bench at Morecambe – but will we see him in action?

It’s unlikely the 36-year-old will start a game in the play-offs, after five months out with a knee injury, yet Black Cats supporters know all about the Irishman’s quality.

Could McGeady provide one more decisive moment off the bench? Neil will probably be hoping it doesn’t get to that point and that his side are in a winning position.

Still, the option is there.