Stephen Goldsmith examines the squad at Martin O’Niell’s disposal and assesses tactics, strengths and weaknesses …
Sunderland, as an attacking force, seemed dead on arrival for the majority of last season. For all Nicklas Bendtner’s undoubted quality, his very un-British work ethic meant that he would feel his exertion was complete should his duties ever require him to drop deep and help keep possession of the football.
Should the world’s most famous number 52 ever decide that bursting a lung to try and arrive in the box- offering himself as the end product of any particular passage of play he has himself helped manufacture- he will almost be as good as he perceives himself to be. He certainly wouldn’t have found himself being shipped out to Sunderland on loan in the first place.
The Black Cats scored an unparelled amount of breathtaking goals last season despite looking significantly weak in attack.
Now as pleasing on the eye as this was, it is quite simply a luxury that is no platform of reliability and Martin O’Neill has subsequently addressed the offensive frailties of the side during this window.
With Fletcher the focal point, he can find himself suitably flanked by Johnson and McClean, and backed up by the outrageous Stéphane Sessègnon. It’s an exciting prospect, it really is.
While happily anticipating all this obvious attacking prowess and the potential mayhem it can cause, it can not be over emphasised just how important of a role the two central midfielders now have in the engine room this season. Holding shape and maintaining defensive discipline are now major matters of importance if the side aren’t to leave themseves exposed and susceptible to folding like a pack of cards during oppositions’ counter-attacks.
The re-invented Lee Cattermole can sleep soundly on a night, safe in the knowledge that only self-imposed suspensions can surely rob him of a place in the side now. His importance in the side was highlighted during his forced removal from the field on Saturday. His replacement against The Swans, David Meyler, is a tidy player who works tirelessy but has never really shown enough to suggest he can play his way into the side.
A preferred system of a two man central midfield could see the beginning of the end for Seb Larsson at the club and I expect him to be used more sparingly this season. David Vaughan is injured and is another who appears to be down in the pecking order, meaning that Jack Colback and Craig Gardner are the two that would seem most likely candidates for the task at hand.
There are obvious comparisons between the two that can be made. They are both central midfielders who have slotted into problematic full back positions when asked and have both succeeded in impressing there in equal measure. The reasons for this are also clear. Both are comfortable and confident on the ball and have added these attributes to their positional knowledge of the position brought on by the fact both have played full back at youth level.
However, we are now at a time where I believe the careers of these two players should begin to branch away into seperate directions. Not in the sense that either should leave, I feel both have a good future here. But when referring back to the impressive performances both players are displaying, it shows us contrasting conclusions of what their best positions actually are.
For all of Gardner’s composure and confidence on the ball, he is caught over-elaborating on it far too often in the middle of the park. His speed of thought appears to be a deficiency in his game when comparing it to that of the others’ around him, especially when attempting to attack with penetration and ruthlessness.
There seems to be no such problem for him when moving forward from deep positions down the right channel as a full back, and his ability to offer help inside and to be able to shoot from range make for a very modern and exciting player in this position. Indeed, I think he can become a superb right back. The more he plays there, the better he will surely get and the more likely he is to iron out the little defensive faults that he sometimes displays through naievity. Ironically it could be a very shrewd piece of business bringing him here from Birmingham for £5 million- in a different position to what was intended.
Colback, some argue, should go down the same route. I disagree. His performances at left back have been near to faultless, but unlike Gardner, this magnifies his ability as a fine footballer and the fact that he would be wasted in this position. In a modern world where the nation and media have begun to become a little obsessed with the inabilities of English players to keep the ball, Colback emerged as a refreshing arguement to that notion last season. The trust heaped on him by his team mates was evident as his ball retention capabilities exceeded his years. And exceeded the stereotyped capabilities of an Englishman it seems. The Tynesider is fast becoming Wearside’s best kept secret and is clear there’s more to come from him. You can see that this player who contains that consistent killer pass and regular goal contribution is inside him waiting to burst out. It’s quite exciting to think that his performances last season were nowhere near his potential.
It is Colback who should benefit the most from Sunderland’s new attacking reinforcements also. Not only does the arrival of Adam Johnson release James McClean from those shackles we saw tactically implemented on him last season- in the form of double marking- it produces extra options for both sitting midfielders when they have the ball.
Lee Cattermole has told the Echo this week: “You get the ball now and there’s four or five options, you’ve just got to see your first pass.”
While this is great news for Lee – a player whose primary job is to keep shape and win the ball – those demands are child’s play for Jack and hopefully he can allow the creative talent and newly added options surrounding him to improve his own game. He can now attempt to stamp his own authority on matches, helping him come out of his shell even further this year. That goal at ‘Boro needs to become a regular feature.
Keiran Richardson has just departed Sunderland and, in his eyes, his career has probably been opressed by the unwanted “utility man” tag. Craig Gardner and Jack Colback can hopefully avoid that particular career path, both certainly have the talent to do so, but in different positions to each other.