The crucial Sunderland calls already looming for Alex Neil ahead of final-day test

To try and predict an Alex Neil starting XI is generally a fool's errand.

By Phil Smith
Wednesday, 27th April 2022, 4:30 pm

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The Sunderland head coach tailors each selection to the demands of the opposition, and has also found himself battling persistent injury issues in his squad since taking charge in February. So much so that he is yet to name the same team in back-to-back games.

On Tuesday night it was no different, Trai Hume making only his second start of Neil's tenure and Elliot Embleton dropping to the bench.

A point earned from a challenging game means Sunderland travel to Morecambe with their fate in their own hands and a number of major dilemmas for Neil are already emerging.

Sunderland boss Alex Neil

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Since arriving on Wearside so many of his selections have been made to cover a shortage of options in the full back position and this weekend will be no different.

Sunderland are still waiting for a full prognosis on Carl Winchester and Dennis Cirkin's injuries and while they are particularly hopeful on the latter being back in action before long, both are major doubts for this weekend.

Cirkin's absence on Tuesday night forced Neil to bring Lynden Gooch over to the left, not unreasonably surmising that Callum Doyle would need greater protection against a powerful Rotherham United side than Patrick Roberts could offer.

That paved the way for Hume's return, Neil saying that his level in training would have brought him into the fold far earlier had Winchester not been performing so consistently. Hume was bright in the first half an hour especially, but Sunderland's attacking output also undoubtedly improved when Gooch moved over the right flank late on.

With Neil's options at left back again minimal, a back three is again likely at Morecambe and finding the right balance will again be his biggest challenge.

There are plenty of big calls to make further forward, too.

Neil admitted post-match that he had some regret over selecting Nathan Broadhead for the game, who had been struggling with a minor injury in the build up.

The head coach was hopeful that his withdrawal early in the second half would allow him enough time to recover ahead of the weekend, but with no other recognised strikers in the squad a slight change of shape would be required if he missed out, likely meaning a second attacking midfielder would be selected as at Lincoln City last month.

The balance of that midfield will be key.

Captain Corry Evans has been one of the first names on the teamsheet since Neil's arrival but he has otherwise tinkered with his side dependent on the opposition.

Against Rotherham he prioritised players who could stand up to the physical challenge, and while Morecambe will be a tough opponent there will be a need for craft, too.

With two substitute appearances under his belt since returning from a calf issue, Alex Pritchard will be a strong contender to return given not just his on-ball quality but his aggressive pressing, too.

Embleton's case for inclusion is clear, while Dan Neil will hope for a chance to impress after limited game time of late.

Whichever way Neil goes, expect there to be a surprise or two.