September 20, 2012 by Socrates
Martin O’Neill is one of the most highly rated managers in British football. Even his critics who point to his significant spending at Celtic and Aston Villa have to admit that he has not really failed in a job yet. However, Sunderland’s form of late and the wage bill that the Black Cats currently pay, has put O’Neill under fire. Sunderland have not picked up a premier league win since the 24th March – a home victory against QPR. O’Neil was brought into the club with the expectations of pushing for European qualification or at least to be the best outside the ‘super six’. Seeing their rivals Newcastle squeeze into the top six last season will surely make their own situation feel a little less tolerable.
While Newcastle did spend money last year, they certainly didn’t waste any. In contrast, Sunderland are struggling to get the most out of their players. There are several individuals on good money who look unlikely to contribute much any time soon. Sunderland bought Connor Wickham for £8 million with the fee to rise to £12 million depending on appearances. Papiss Cissé is reported to have cost Newcastle just the £8 million. Demba Ba was hailed as the best signing of the season after joining the Toon on a free transfer. Martin O’Neill does not look set to emulate that by snapping up 34-year-old Louis Saha. While Sunderland fans may point to the good start that Steven Fletcher has had (though for £14 million there are certain expectations), the likes of Wickham, Saha, Frazier Campbell and Ji Dong-Won are all watching from the sidelines and being paid for it.
Martin O’Neill has tried to sound calm and indeed positive about his sides prospects this season, but alarm bells must surely be ringing. There is huge imbalance in the Black Cats’ squad. Carlos Cuellar has just been ruled out for a few weeks with a hamstring injury – an injury problem which hampered his last few seasons at Aston Villa. With Wes Brown still recovering from knee ligament damage, it looks like big Titus Bramble will provide the cover. The 31-year-old centre-back impressed the Wigan fans a few years back but has picked up plenty of critics over his career. And for the time being the hard tackling central midfielder Craig Gardner is currently filling it at right-back for the injured Phillip Bardsley. But do either really possess the quality at full-back to turn Sunderland’s form around?
Just today, O’Neill has warned that Adam Johnson should not be rushed back. Understandably the manager is concerned that his new wide-man will be running the risk of damaging his thigh again. Ultimately though, O’Neill must be desperate to have Johnson in the team. The Northern Irishman has always understood the importance of quality wide players. Quick, skillful wingers play a huge role in his counterattacking philosophy – he bought Ashley Young, Stewart Downing and James Milner (though converted the last into a central player) in his time at Villa with Shaun Maloney and Wayne Routledge as cover. Worryingly though, he will surely have to drop either James McClean or Sebastian Larsson to make way for Johnson. Hardly the weakest performers at Sunderland. McClean has the energy and work-rate that is needed on the left to help out the inexperienced at largely overrated Danny Rose at left-back. Similarly Sebastian Larsson would be missed but more for his renowned set piece delivery and tactical awareness – traits which O’Neill will be reluctant to lose.
Adam Johnson then will be nearly under as much pressure as the manager when he does make his return. On either wing he will find himself playing in front of a full-back of much less quality than the likes of Gael Clichy or Pablo Zabaleta. furthermore its a pretty uninspiring central midfield. The combative Lee Cattermole is paired up with Jack Colback, and last season’s form player, Stephane Sessegnon, has failed to show his attacking prowess so far this campaign. Even if Johnson hits the ground running and his crosses provide the much-needed supply for striker Steven Fletcher, it would be no surprise at all if O’Neill invests again in January. That is of course if he’s still in a job.