It is always good to see Martin O’Neill jumping up and celebrating a goal on the touchline and as he won his first game in charge of his new club, could it be that there was a new superhero in town? If I’d had written this post when Martin O’Neill claimed his first win, I could have made such an over the top statement and spoken of how he had an instant impact, but we all know this wouldn’t have been true.
On Sunday I made a visit to White Hart Lane to watch Sunderland as they took on Spurs and as I looked at the animated Martin O’Neill on the touchline, I thought to myself this guy has a big job on his hands. Sunderland are an aspiring club that seem to want to go places, on paper O’Neill seems like the type of guy who can turn any team around and improve them, but can Martin O’Neill be Sunderland’s superman or is the task too big to make them anything other than a half-decent side?
Steve Bruce was a guy trying to do the right things with Sunderland. He was signing players that he felt would take them to the next level. He bought promising youngsters like Connor Wickham and Kieran Westwood. He was also trying to snap up the best of the rest like Michael Turner, Sebastian Larsson, Lee Cattermole, Craig Gardner and David Vaughan – players that had performed at a high-level for other Premier League sides, but he knew he could attract them to Sunderland. Then he tried to add some more ‘big name’ experience from top sides like Nicklas Bendtner, John O’Shea and Wes Brown. You could see what he was trying to do – it just didn’t quite work out quickly enough for him.
Martin O’Neill inherits a squad that is okay, not the best, but strong enough to avoid relegation. There are some silver linings for O’Neill when it comes to Sunderland’s players, starting with Keiren Westwood. The young Republic of Ireland goalkeeper has been a revelation since getting his chance between the sticks. He came in for the injured Mignolet and hasn’t looked back, there is no reason why he can’t be number 1 – to be honest Sunderland need a solid keeper. Craig Gordon has been unlucky with injuries, but seemed to be inconsistent. Mignolet is another highly-rated youngster, especially in Belgium, despite splitting opinion so far in the North-East.
A player I really like and is Sessègnon. The tricky Frenchman is a live-wire and a player that can really turn it on when he is on his game. O’Neill’s main task will be finding out where he fits in. Connor Wickham may sound like a traveller from ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’, but he is an exciting young player that, if O’Neill can develop correctly, could be one of Sunderland’s and England’s biggest threats for years to come. Other youngsters that could step-up are Jack Colback, James McClean, Ji Dong-Won and Oumare Tounkara. You can see why O’Neill was drawn to the hot-seat at his boyhood club, the potential is there.
On the pitch it is a different story. Spurs 1-0 Sunderland was not a story about Sunderland playing well and holding the Premier League high-flyers, it was about Spurs being awful in the first half and then dominating in the second. Sunderland looked like they were playing for a draw; I suppose maybe it is the best they could hope for with their current plight.
During the game there were a lot of issues. Firstly upfront Wickham was isolated and Sessègnon looked lost. When Bentdner came on little improved, infact, it got worse as the White Hart Lane crowd took immense pleasure in how poor on-loan Arsenal forward Bendtner was. Sessègnon drifted in and out of the game and he is one of those types of players who has all the ability in the world, but getting him to play consistently is a tough task.
Spurs lost all width within 20 minutes, but still they didn’t really need to get out of a canter against Sunderland. When The Black Cats did have chances they were unable to capitalise. Sandro and Parker had to work hard against in a midfield area where there was space, but seemed to snuff out any danger with ease as Sunderland struggled to create through the middle.
Sunderland’s wide areas will be a cause for concern for O’Neill; The game seemed to pass Richardson by in the main, and with Larsson coming inside, they looked totally exposed by Spurs full-backs, which was their only wide outlets. Walker was taking on two players down Sunderland’s left, whilst O’Shea found himself 1-on-1 with Assou-Ekotto a lot of the time on the left, which should have led to more Spurs chances as he seemed to ghost past O’Shea with ease. Sunderland need to become a better unit.
O’Neill will have to get the best out of what he has got, this will apply to the players that have been around, but never been able to establish themselves at bigger clubs – the likes of O’Shea, Bardsley, Bramble, Bendtner. He will need to address the issues on the wings and upfront to turn Sunderland in to any sort of threat. He will no doubt want to trim the squad, probably in the summer, consolidate and build.
O’Neill knows a couple of Sunderland squad from his Villa days; he had Phil Bardsley on loan and chose not to sign him after deciding he wasn’t good enough for Villa. He was in charge when Villa sold Craig Gardner who was a player he liked for his versatility, but who wanted first team football that O’Neill didn’t give him and rumours about his future have already started. O’Neill’s ability to spot talent is also in question for me; he signed players for Villa like Zat Knight, Marlon Harewood, Steve Sidwell, Nicky Shorey, Carlos Cuellar, Habib Beye – players that haven’t gone on to achieve very little.
On the plus side whilst Villa manager he did sign Downing, Young, Friedel, Collins, Dunne and Milner who were all established talents and made up the core of a good Villa side. From this you could conclude he will stay true to signing British as well rather than foreign players. He made an error in hindsight having sold Gary Cahill, but was also quick to shift a lot of deadwood, even some that he had himself signed.
I think if he has learnt anything, he will be shrewder with his signings and go big early to show his and Sunderland’s intent. Sunderland have had a lot of crap in their squad over the years and O’Neill cannot afford to take chances with unknowns or maybe men if Sunderland are to move up the league. He needs to keep big players happy – Gyan is Sunderland’s best player, but is out on loan, a move that came out of nowhere and left them short, such mistakes cannot be repeated. Former player Darren Bent has never been truly replaced and this is an area that will require O’Neill’s attentions, recruiting a 20-goal striker isn’t easy.
Sunderland are a great club with a good stadium and great fans, and if O’Neill can bring organisation, discipline, motivation and belief they can turn things around with their current squad. The foundations at Sunderland are there to see, keeping them in the Premier League will be a good start before O’Neill’s real work can begin. Whether Sunderland will ever be anything more than a mid-table team is the big question, but if O’Neill can’t do it, very few can. O’Neill isn’t a superman who could change Sunderland into European contenders over night, but maybe over a few seasons, this sleeping giant may awake.