One of the main cliché’s launched at players and team’s is a concept of ‘second season syndrome’ – something I struggle to accept that a simplistic solution could be used to explain a teams or player’s failings. Two players at Wearside struggling in their second full season in England’s top division are James McClean and Stephane Sessegnon and I struggle to accept that their failings are down to the difficulty of maintaining standards year on year.
Firstly looking at McClean, I’m sceptical as to how amazing his first season was. The Irishman added width and pace to Sunderland’s attack in a weak area prior to Martin O’Neill’s arrival; however when breaking down his Sunderland career there’s an argument the good form was the anomaly not his dip afterwards. Like much of Sunderland’s first team, his form declined dramatically after March, when the Black Cats had little to play for. His form hasn’t returned since, therefore there is an argument that McClean has played ten good games and 20 poor games on Wearside.
Another explanation is that the element of surprise helped the former Derry City man. After injury and being bedded in at reserve level at the start of the season McClean was only added to the team in January, meaning players and managers were unlikely to have known a great deal about the 23 year old. I definitely think there’s an argument that McClean caught teams unaware before being exposed as a one-dimensional outlet. A good example of this is the two FA Cup clashes with Everton, the Irishman managed to lure Phil Neville into a sloppy foul early in the first fixture, before Neville adapted and easily dealt with the pacy winger for the best part of three hours.
Arguably the most worrying element of McClean’s development is his attitude. He showed immaturity and arguably idiocy in his foul mouthed Twitter rant aimed at Giovanni Trapattoni. Attitude is particularly important now teams are practicing to expose your weaknesses and McClean still shows a worrying lack of trust in his right foot and overdependence on speed, while his final ball is inconsistent but I’d be more hopeful this will come back with confidence.
An interesting comparison can be made between McClean and a similar but currently vastly superior player in Gareth Bale. The Wales international became the most feared Premier League player after two world-class performances against Inter Milan in the Champions League and instantly struggled with defenders doubling up on him and teams playing to stop him. On a much smaller scale the same has happened with McClean. What has once again turned Bale into one of the most potent attacking weapons in the country appears to be hard work; he’s improved in the air and on his right foot making him more dangerous and less one dimensional. A player who publically goes against one of the world’s most experienced, respected managers nine months after being an unknown doesn’t fill me with confidence of having the same mentality. Tottenham Hotspur also have a vastly superior team to Sunderland, their dominance in possession last year and quality of midfield meant players were often able to isolate players with the Welshman.
Sessegnon is a much more curious case, the Benin international looked superb last year and while teams will now rarely allow him space and may have like McClean become more aware of his quality I still expected him to make a big impact. Lots of creative players especially through the middle get found out – David Silva faded last year and still looks jaded now, while the same may happen in six months time to Santi Cazorla. Lack of pre-season didn’t help the 28 year old and maybe summer speculation turned his head. However Sessegnon is too good in my opinion to stay terrible for long, recently dropped I expect Sessegnon to come back stronger for the Black Cats. A much more multi-dimensional player than the Irish international mentioned above, I believe by the end of this extended season we will be talking about the blip Sessegnon had rather than a season of failures. For Sunderland’s sake that must be the case.