When Martin O’Neill was appointed Sunderland manager in the December of last year, the obvious remit was to try and steer the Black Cats away from the looming dangers that came with their precarious position in the Premier League.
Steve Bruce’s side may not have seemed like genuine relegation candidates, but they were certainly showing relegation form – two wins all season left them two points off the bottom three with only a few weeks left till Christmas. Yet almost as soon as O’Neill was ushered in, there was a palpable sense of relief.
The Ulsterman is a grafter, a manager in the mould of the old school with a résumé that demands respect. And almost predictably, O’Neill didn’t disappoint, either. His appointment paid almost instant dividends, with Sunderland winning four of his first six games, as the ex-Villa manager galvanized and rejuvenated a hugely under-performing side.
A 13th place finish eventually beckoned for the season and after successfully salvaging Sunderland’s fortunes in his half-season in charge, the focus shifted to the future and beyond. After successfully fulfilling the first part of the job, O’Neill’s task had evolved.
This was a man who had taken Aston Villa from a woeful 16th place Premier League finish in the wake of David O’Leary’s reign, to an eventual three consecutive sixth-placed finishes. Hopes were high and optimism was cautiously in bloom. Circumstances differed of course, but why couldn’t he try and repeat the trick at the Stadium of Light?
From what we’ve seen so far, progress however, certainly seems to be a mixed bag. Miracles don’t happen overnight, the evolution of a squad takes time and there is a hell of a lot of football still to be played this season. But if Sunderland are going to look to aim to achieve anything near resembling Europa League qualification in the near future, as O’Neill has carefully touted as a potential aim, they’re going to have to show an awful lot more than what we’ve seen so far.
The wild west nature of the Premier League’s mid table, makes it notoriously difficult to make any form of educated estimate of a side’s potential league placing come May – especially not after only nine games in.
Should O’Neill’s side win their game in hand, they will be only three points behind sixth placed Arsenal. Yet equally, they currently sit only three points ahead of 17th placed Aston Villa, who they play host to this Saturday. Finding a run of form at the right time is going to be crucial for the Black Cats. Equally, they can take solace in that they’ve picked up points without playing to the best of their capabilities.
But it’s finding out quite how well this side are capable of playing, which is where the fortunes to their season may lie. Because at the moment, it’s hard to establish quite where the extra level of performance they’ll need to make genuine strides up the table is.
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Martin O’Neill has looked to finally solve their abjectly poor output up front in the signing of Steven Fletcher. Unfortunately for O’Neill though, the rest of his side have stopped scoring. Fletcher has of course remarkably scored five of the Black Cats’ six Premier League goals. Newcastle United’s Demba Ba can proudly lay claim to being Sunderland’s second highest league goalscorer, with his own-goal in the recent Tyne-Wear derby.
It’s probably not too early to state that despite only being at the club for a matter of months, the men from Wearside have already come a little reliant on Fletcher. Because past the Scot’s performances, it’s hard to see where the goals may come from.
As Martin O’Neill stated after the miserable 1-0 defeat to Middlesbrough in the League Cup this week, that things simply aren’t clicking for his side at the moment:
“If the ball is not rolling for or we are finding it a bit difficult.
“Well, that is just football, you roll your sleeves up and go again.
“We have very talented players in the club and for one reason or another it just has not been happening for them.”
O’Neill has to find a way to try to nurture a little more creativity into this Sunderland side, particularly in centre midfield, if he wants to push the club forward. The way he’s got the side set-up at the moment is fine in some respects – they look solid enough, with plenty of industry and they’re working hard if nothing else. They shouldn’t find themselves in any form of relegation trouble, put it that way.
Although they’re hardly going to float up the table playing that way either and the Ulsterman must be more proactive in trying to find that spark and, as he says, ‘make things happen’. The likes of Stephane Sessegnon and James McClean have looked like a shadow of the players they were last season but O’Neill can’t wait forever before they fire on all cylinders. Why not shake things up and try something different?
Louis Saha may be in his twilight years, but he showed enough during his very short time at Spurs to suggest he still has something to offer. How much less creative could Sunderland be, by dropping the ineffective Sessegnon for Saha or Fraizer Campbell, going with a traditional two up front? Jack Colback hasn’t done much wrong in centre midfield, but he’s not done much right, either. Why not give the more creative David Vaughan a run in the side?
At the very least, O’Neill should be looking to cultivate a bit of creativity in front of the home crowd. The Premier League is an unforgiving beast and given the consequences a badly taken risk can produce, it’s no wonder managers prefer to play it safe. But unless Martin O’Neill takes the brakes off Sunderland soon, it might not be long before his team’s sideways movement turns backwards.
What would you do to move things forward at Sunderland? Let me know on Twitter: follow @samuel_antrobus and tell me how you’d shake things up at Wearside.