The vital assist and impressive record that will hand Alex Neil a Sunderland selection dilemma

It could well prove to be one of the defining moments of Sunderland's season.

Before Elliot Embleton picked the ball up Alex Neil's side were drifting to eighth in the League One table; more valuable ground lost in the race for the top six.

Though the defending was poor, the cross was excellent and header from Nathan Broadhead precise. A big boost for Sunderland, and perhaps a big moment too for Embleton.

The attacking midfielder's technical talent is not in question but since Neil's arrival he has made only two starts. In the first he was asked to carry out a limited wide role as Sunderland successfully absorbed pressure at Wigan Athletic, and in the second he scrambled a crucial equaliser in an otherwise poor team performance against Fleetwood Town.

Elliot Embleton in action against Gillingham on Saturday

The 23-year-old was a crucial player in the early weeks of the season under Lee Johnson but a red card at Gillingham and the emergence of the excellent Alex Pritchard, who began to excel off the ball as much as on it, meant that while game time was still regular it was undoubtedly more limited.

That crucial assist on Saturday afternoon, though, underlined his habit of making a key contribution in the final third. It was his sixth assist of the League One season, taking his combined goal and assist tally to 11. Those are solid but not unremarkable numbers, but ones that look increasingly impressive when you factor in the often stop-start nature of his season.

Embleton is not in the top 30 for combined goals and assists across the division generally, but when you assess his record of producing a goal or an assist once every 193 minutes, only a handful of non-centre forwards in that list are producing as consistently: Wigan Athletic's trio of Callum Lang, James McClean, and Will Keane, Lincoln City's Anthony Scully (who has scored three penalties), Ipswich Town's Wes Burns, and MK Dons' outstanding Scott Twine.

At Sunderland Nathan Broadhead (one goal or assist every 99 minutes) and Ross Stewart (160) lead the way but in terms of the midfielders, Embleton's record is right up there.

Advertisement

Hide Ad

Alex Pritchard is ahead of him but only ever-so slightly, with 12 goals or assists at a rate of 1 every 179 minutes.

Only Leon Dajaku has a better record and that is from a significantly smaller sample size. There is of course context to be considered, with Embleton taking set pieces when Pritchard is on the pitch. Patrick Roberts and Jack Clarke have had to build up their match fitness and were initially limited mostly to late cameo appearances, while Lynden Gooch has often had to operate in a deeper wing-back role.

Competition for places will be fierce through the closing six (and hopefully three more) games of the campaign, particularly with the outstanding Broadhead back fit after more hamstring issues.

Embleton's assist on Saturday, however, was a reminder of his habit of producing the kind of quality in possession you don't often see at this level.

Advertisement

Hide Ad

Two-footed, willing to take a risk and able to play in just about any position from midfield forwards, he has an invaluable versatility and a record that Neil could perhaps make more use of.

SUNDERLAND GOALS & ASSIST RECORD 2021/22

Nathan Broadhead – 6 from 598 minutes

Ross Stewart – 24 from 3842 minutes

Advertisement

Hide Ad

Leon Dajaku – 7 from 1322 minutes

Aiden McGeady – 7 from 1050 minutes (inc. three penalties)

Alex Pritchard – 12 from 2159 minutes

Elliot Embleton – 11 from 2125 minutes

Advertisement

Hide Ad

Dan Neil – 10 from 2905 minutes

Jack Clarke – 2 from 709 minutes

Luke O’Nien – 4 from 1776 minutes

Lynden Gooch – 5 from 2659 minutes

Advertisement

Hide Ad

Patrick Roberts – 1 from 578 minutes

A message from the Football Clubs Editor

Our aim is to provide you with the best, most up-to-date and most informative Sunderland AFC coverage 365 days a year.

This depth of coverage costs, so to help us maintain the high-quality reporting that you are used to, please consider taking out a subscription to our new sports-only package here.

Advertisement

Hide Ad

Your support is much appreciated. Richard Mennear, Football Clubs Editor