When a grown man impersonates a chicken on a football pitch it can only mean one thing, Kevin Nolan has just found the back of the net. His latest goal arrived in the form of a late equaliser as the Hammers rescued a point and confined Sunderland to yet another draw. The Black Cats are still without a win this season or indeed in their last 12 Premier League fixtures, which begs the question, why isn’t Martin O’Neill under more pressure?
Those of you who enjoy a good statistic will be intrigued to learn that O’Neill has acquired only nine points in his last dozen matches, whereas Steve Bruce managed the slightly improved figure of ten before he was sacked. It’s fair to say that the initial honeymoon period that saw Wearside undergo a staggering transformation is a distant memory and once again O’Neill will have to dig deep into his bag of tricks to create another success story.
Perhaps the sole reason O’Neill appears to be granted more time and resources revolves around his portfolio of triumphant managerial stints across the country. Unless I am very much mistaken, O’Neill is a member of a small group of managers that have never been sacked although perhaps he jumped before he was pushed in certain situations. Nevertheless his key trio of Leicester, Celtic and Aston Villa have all suffered since his departure, a trend chairman Ellis Short will be well aware of.
O’Neill has spent the summer quietly reassembling his squad as he seeks to build on the encouraging aspects of last season. The free signings of Louis Saha and Carlos Cuellar provide ample experience in a team with a number of promising youngsters. The capture of Adam Johnson is a real coup considering the number of teams reportedly interested and has generated a real sense of excitement amongst supporters. The prospect of a partnership with James McClean on the opposite flank is something many opposing teams will fear in the upcoming months.
The real achievement though has transpired from the purchase of Steven Fletcher, who continues to defy and contradict the ridicule that spawned from his £12m price tag. His ninth minute strike at Upton Park on Saturday marked his fourth goal in three games and somewhat unbelievably means he has now scored a goal from every shot he’s had this season (excluding those that were blocked). He may not be the most glamorous of strikers but you cannot help but admire his ruthless nature in front of goal.
Fletcher’s shots-to-goal ratio while impressive highlights the cautious and somewhat uninspiring tactics employed by O’Neill this season. This is a far cry from the free-flowing attacking philosophy that allowed Villa to surge up the table and enjoy numerous nights out in Europe. O’Neill was bought in to help rectify the bland football that had demoralised fans during the leadership of Bruce and Roy Keane, not reinforce it.
This ‘negative’ strategy has however allowed Sunderland to pick up unlikely points at home to Liverpool and on their travels against Arsenal and high-flying Swansea. If you dig a little deeper you’ll discover that the club are yet to go behind in any of their games this season. On average Sunderland have conceded their first goal in the 70th minute compared to when they score their first goal in the 27th minute. Perhaps a few more laps of the training pitch would have enabled Sunderland to hang onto their lead and see us branding them as potential European rather than relegation candidates.
Despite these positives O’Neill will undoubtedly be eager for Sunderland to distance themselves from a playing style that focuses on grinding out results, especially with Alan Pardew dictating free-flowing and exciting football in the neighbouring town. This week’s home tie against Wigan provides the perfect opportunity to dominate proceedings, which should be aided by the expected home debut of Adam Johnson.
Should the club fail to collect maximum points from Wigan tough, then the murmurs of discontent could increase in volume at the Stadium of Light, especially with encounters against the reigning champions Manchester City and arch-rivals Newcastle on the horizon.
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