Popular Posts

Monday, December 5, 2011

O'Neill must give Sunderland stimulus

The inheritance Martin O'Neill is contemplating at Sunderland can be described as a complex jigsaw puzzle in which certain key pieces seem to have been mislaid and others appear to be uneasy fits.

Steve Bruce never quite managed to perform the tactical airbrushing required to compensate for the team's lack of a natural left-winger and a proper left-back, not to mention the general shortage of central midfield creativity and pace, but imaginative solutions are expected from his successor.

Ellis Short, Sunderland's chairman, who hopes to conclude negotiations with O'Neill on Saturday, trusts that, allied to a rare ability to simplify tactics, the 59-year-old's intense blend of intelligence, energy, charisma and pragmatism will camouflage the squad's flaws. Regardless of whether he debates a potentially audacious switch from the 4-4-2 system currently highlighting Sunderland's weaknesses to the 3-5-2 configurations that once served him well at Leicester City and Celtic, much of his early work will surely involve readjusting mindsets.

Bruce's constant litany of complaints about overweening crowd expectations, referees, media criticism and sheer bad luck are likely to be replaced by demands for players to raise their standards. This season several members of Bruce's squad have complained about nagging injuries. Some possibly reflected a, perhaps subconscious, desire to withdraw from the frontline at a time when results were poor and crowd support was ebbing inexorably away from the manager but many are likely to clear up magically now. O'Neill, after all, has a reputation of persuading footballers to leap through metaphorical hoops of fire.

He is loyalty personified towards those who buy into his philosophy, though his selectively scathing tongue has been known to reduce brash young millionaires to gibbering wrecks.

It should be instructive to see how, among others, talented yet arguably underachieving Sunderland players such as Lee Cattermole, Kieran Richardson, Ahmed Elmohamady and Titus Bramble (who faces a crown court appearance on sexual assault charges, which he denies, in January) respond to their new mentor.

Similarly Bruce recently revealed that Wes Brown and John O'Shea, signed from Manchester United last summer, had pronounced themselves "shocked" by the noisy demands of the Wearside public.

With a boyhood Sunderland fan now in charge (growing up in Northern Ireland, O'Neill idolised Charlie Hurley) those two veteran defenders can now anticipate reminders that a slumbering giant seeking to reposition itself as one of the Premier League's top eight clubs is not some sort of comfortable early retirement home.

If the deliberate air of mystery cultivated by a manager who, at times, likes to distance himself from his squad and keep people guessing should serve as an antidote to complacency, Sunderland's board are confident O'Neill's mere touchline presence will eradicate apathy among a home crowd underwhelmed by a mere two home wins at the Stadium of Light since New Year's Day. Short, for one, is banking on the regime change boosting crowds from below the 40,000 mark to somewhere approaching the ground's 49,000 capacity.

Excitement and optimism have been in short supply on Wearside of late but if the former Aston Villa manager is to see the feelgood factor endure he must find a way of ensuring Sunderland become more ruthless in front of goal. All too often this season Bruce's team forced an initially high tempo, created some decent openings and threatened to win easily before spurning chances, eventually fading, ceding midfield control and forfeiting points.

At various times during his Wearside tenure the former Manchester United captain had Kenwyne Jones, Darren Bent, Danny Welbeck and Asamoah Gyan at his disposal but, with Connor Wickham sidelined by knee trouble, O'Neill must make do with Nicklas Bendtner, Ji Dong-won and Stéphane Sessègnon.

While Bendtner, on loan from Arsenal, is undeniably gifted he spends far too much time outside the box to be prolific, Ji is taking time to adjust to English life and the fast-footed Sessègnon looks more of a midfielder than a finisher. And none of that trio are being provided with sufficient high calibre crosses of the type winger-propelled O'Neill teams traditionally thrive on.

Aware that without Sebastian Larsson's precision from set pieces, Sunderland might already be in the relegation zone rather than two points above it, the new manager may decide to recall Gyan from a bizarre loan with Al-Ain in the United Arab Emirates during next month's transfer window.

By then his backroom team will have been revamped in a manner offering prominent coaching roles to Steve Walford and John Robertson. Further behind-the-scenes alterations seem inevitable but, after a revolving-door transfer market policy that saw Bruce sign 30 players in two-and-a-half years and, only last summer, radically reorganise the club's medical, sports science and scouting departments, Sunderland crave stability as well as stimulus. O'Neill's challenge is to provide both.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Popular Posts