Stephen Elliott: Has Sunderland head coach Alex Neil struck upon a winning defensive combination?

You could be forgiven if you felt a little bit surprised that Sunderland not only came away from Wigan with a win, but one of the most comfortable victories we have seen in a long time away from home.

By Stephen Elliott
Monday, 28th February 2022, 4:30 pm

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I know I was hugely surprised at how comfortable it seemed Sunderland found winning the game.

Wigan looked surprised too and they were second best most afternoon all over the pitch.

The thing that pleased me most on Saturday - besides the three points for Sunderland - was the body language and spirit that seemed evident in the team.

Sunderland beat Wigan Athletic at the weekend.

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It was like looking at a different squad of players compared to what we have seen in recent weeks.

There was a real hunger and desire right from the kick-off and this set the tone for how the game panned out.

The two centre backs epitomised everything that was great about Saturday.

Both Bailey Wright and Arbenit Xhemajli were real leaders on the pitch and looked like they had a top relationship on the pitch.

It genuinely looked like they had played a lot of games together.

Wright seems to have grabbed the bull from the horn and was Johnny on the spot to grab the opening goal early on.

However, Arbenit Xhemajli, in particular, stood out for me given his long-term injury and what little gametime he has had of late.

If Sunderland are going to have a promotion push then defensively the team has to be sound.

These two boys could be key to that if they continue their good partnership moving on from Saturday.

Alex Pritchard once again offensively showed he is a level above and his performance answered some potential questions on why the likes of Leon Dajaku, Jack Clarke and Roberts are not in the starting XI.

On the team selection, I think huge credit has to be given to head coach Alex Neil.

After not winning in his opening couple of games he could have easily made wholesale changes but he stuck with the majority of last week’s team, with only Embleton coming in for Defoe, the only change that wasn’t enforced.

Obviously with Callum Doyle struggling he had no other real option to change the back line.

The team has obviously been well drilled and there seemed a real unity on the pitch.

I think Neil has made a mark already, that he doesn’t care for reputations and will go with what he believes are the best players for each game.

Obviously I’m not certain but I’d imagine after listening to him speak that there will be less acceptance of players not digging in and pulling tighter than what perhaps there was under Lee Johnson.

He tells it how it is and I genuinely think he will go on and be a success at this club.

The team can’t afford to sit back and admire this result as it’s another tough game away on Saturday ahead.

Teams in and around the League One play-offs keep winning so any points dropped could be season killers.

I was very downhearted after last week but after watching that surprising performance on Saturday I have renewed belief that this team can get out of this division at last.

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