Martin O’Neill and the post-Norwich, pre-Man Utd & Chelsea blues

Jake: 'what's gone wrong, Gaffer?'
Jake: ‘what’s gone wrong, Gaffer?’

Steve Jacques, a Sunderland supporter, is owed a Salut! Sunderland mug for being the 1,000th follower at Twitter: @salutsunderland. He does not want the Martin O’Neill design. Terry McLoughlin won, to his regret, the Guess the Score competition; he wonders whether the mug’s ‘Team of all Talents’ slogan could be changed to ‘Team of the Talentless’. Pete Sixsmith, meanwhile, finds unwanted vindication for a view of the manager he expressed earlier in the season …

There’ve been two or three days
to mull over the weekend’s latest disappointment. Articles have been written, comments have been noted and opinions have been expressed. Unfortunately the league table makes no better reading and our cause is not helped by some rather worrying observations and stories coming out of the club.

The body language did not look good on Sunday. Craig Gardner was left to his own devices after he had rattled in the equaliser. The other players drifted back to take up their positions, leaving him to roar alone at the relieved crowd. He may not be the best player that we have, but there are few as committed.

Other players looked exasperated as almost every move broke down. Fingers were being pointed and arms held out as another pass went astray or no one moved for it. It was tetchy and argumentative and looked like a group of players who no longer enjoy each other’s company or professional respect.

Simon Mignolet shook his head as he left the field. As the only player we have who is a genuinely saleable asset and who has done more than anyone else to enable us to limp along to 31 points, we can only hope that it was frustration and not resignation.

I asked here a few months ago whether the manager could cope with a return to a high pressure job after two years out of the saddle. All the signs indicate that he can’t. He looks tired and drawn and as if he has run out of ideas. What worked at Leicester, Celtic and Villa does not work at Sunderland.

Sixer loves London. But not that much
Sixer (right, in a fetching green) with Sobs

Is it easy to change ideas and habits? It is not. As you move through your 60s you are more inclined to fall back on what worked in the past even if it is not what people want now.

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Martin O’Neill nurtured Emile Heskey at Leicester and then signed him for Villa. He succeeded with him because the whole team was geared towards getting the ball up to him. The age of ball retention and slow but incisive passing had not reached the Premier League. Getting it up front as quickly as possible was the rule then. But no longer

We still do that but it doesn’t work at all if the ball does not get into the danger area and with us it does not. Do we practise? Are specific problems being addressed? Are players’ weaknesses identified and are they sufficiently well motivated to work on them? All rhetorical questions, but we all have opinions.

Fifteen months ago, the entire support was galvanised by the arrival of an accomplished manager with a track record far superior to that of any other appointed in the club’s long and distinguished history.

Now we are drawing up wish lists for the next man. Poyet? Di Canio? Hughton? Appleton? Should we survive, there may be a gradual change. Should the unthinkable happen and we slide into the Championship, heaven alone knows what we may ”attract”.

As a manager with a big name and high media profile, Martin ticked the same boxes as Lawrie McMenemy. As a Sunderland supporter he ticked the same boxes as Mick Buxton. Not the greatest combination is it?

* Without wishing to depress Sunderland supporters even further, and allowing for its appearance in a Newcastle-based newspaper, this is how Neil Cameron summed up the malaise:

Monsieur Salut, by Matt
Monsieur Salut, by Matt

** And Monsieur Salut has his say at ESPN:

This was a season when Sunderland were supposed to be moving upwards. O’Neill’s first full season in charge, it was hoped, would allow him to improve on last May’s disappointing finish of 13th, three places lower than the much-criticised Steve Bruce had managed a year earlier.

He bought Steve Fletcher and Adam Johnson, brought in Danny Rose on loan and Carlos Cuellar for free and even managed to persuade Stephane Sessegnon to stay. In January, he added the purchase of Danny Graham. The excuse that this is not his team has thus worn thin. And what has happened? One dreary, ineffectual display after another leaves that team hoping at best to scramble clear by a wafer-thin margin.

16 thoughts on “Martin O’Neill and the post-Norwich, pre-Man Utd & Chelsea blues”

  1. I’m an optimist too, but I honestly look at the fixture list and see us going down. Sorry. : s
    Villa and Wigan’s form is better and they look capable of winning. We don’t look capable of that even at home v 10 man Norwich.
    I hate to say this but I predict we are relegated.

  2. Danny Graham was watching Gateshead beat Hereford United last night. He would have seen a tactically aware ‘Heed team survive two Bramble-esque defensive blunders to win 3-2. He may well have reflected on the fact that the tactical nous of Gateshead managerial duo if former SAFC men Anthony Smith and David Rush appears to be far superior to that shown by his current manager.

  3. The negative comments on the ability of the team are a fair reflection of the output of the players this season, but I’m a borne optimist and will not lose sight of the positives that are currently obscured in the gloom.

    I have sympathy for MON who inherited a non-competitive squad that he is trying to improve on a steady and sustainable basis. He has had notable success with Fletcher and Rose, whilst Cuellar, as a stop-gap, made a decent early impression before the injuries set in. N’Diaye shows promise for next season, leaving Graham and Johnson with the big question marks over their likely effectiveness.

    All good sides are built around a strong “spine”. We lack pace and quality at centre back and in central midfield which largely negates the potential threat we have on the wings and at centre forward. This is clear to all supporters, and undoubtably to the coaching staff so what do we do in the last 8 games to stay up?

    MON must give the supporters (and players) the confidence to fight for every point. I do not subscribe to the belief that we simply write off games against Man U, Chelsea, Everton etc. Forget entertainment, and concentrate on being hard to beat, and remember that we have games against Aston Villa, Newcastle, Stoke and Southampton to come.

    The hated 4-5-1 system will be needed in these final games, in which I believe we need to employ wingers that are prepared and able to track back, that means dropping Johnson to the bench and putting Larsson in the only position in which he is effective, i.e. right wing. McClean should play left wing in a partnership with Rose. If he is fit, Bardsley should be at right back with Gardner moved to join N’Diaye in central midfield. Sessegnon will play in the hole and Fletcher up front, leaving Graham on the bench for now. It is now too late to bring Mangane in, so we will have to stick with O’Shea and Bramble as the central defence and hope that Titus can maintain his concentration for the whole game. The goalkeeper picks himself.

    Many of these players have a fire in their bellies and it is MON’s role to stoke it into the inferno we need in every game and dispel the meekness we have shown of late.

    I am an optimist, and I do believe we can stay up this season!

    • I also believe we can also stay up, however additionally I am not ignorant to the malaise we are in.

      My sympathy with MON’s inheritence, 15 months and three transfer windows later, is very thin on the ground. Some of his management decisions have been, quite frankly, bizarre.

      The ‘hated’ 4,5,1 formation is only marginally less ineffective than the 4,4,2…same playing staff = same result!

      There is quite obviously much more wrong at the club than ‘player confidence’,’run of poor results, and whatever other platitudes people can run out.

      I’m all for optimism, but I draw the line at blind faith. We can stay up, but without a seismic shift behind the scenes it is not going to happen unless those around us perform even more poorly than us. Anything is possible, even a recovery in playing standards, but it still leaves an awful liot of ‘issues’ to be resolved. Still, one fence at a time and lets hope the players start to feel some sort of professional pride and are willing to put in the necessary effort required to pull us out of this pit.

      • I think the main problem [ regarding PL survival ] is that all the endangered teams, with the exception of Reading are playing pretty well. This includes QPR, who although in a desperate position, are fighting for each other, and have a great manager.

        Sunderland, in comparison lack technique, confidence or team spirit.Whilst O’Neill did inherit a poor squad, the tactical issues and, critically, the morale, are plainly things which can be laid at his door, and he has been found sadly lacking.

        Something has gone badly wrong at the SOL, and I would be surprised if MO’N has not lost the dressing room.

        I agree with your point about formations. I think far too much is made about how teams are ” set up ” as the pundits choose to call it. IMO, you start a game with a general strategy, but circumstances almost always dictate how easily you are able to stick to it.

        They say that genius is 90% perspiration. Our players need to bear that in mind, and totally commit themselves as they did when O’Neill joined the club last season. They demonstrated for a brief period that they could compete with the best. This is the message that the manager should be putting out. I have no idea why he appears to have lost the ability to do so?

      • I’m with everyone that I’m worried to the point of physical sickness. I agree on the lack of quality and fight, and I fear he worst.

        I agree with Tom though that there has to be at least two performances in this squad somewhere and that 4411 with Sess behind seems a reasonable idea – Richard Mason made a point on the podcast that this was the most fruitful for Sunderland if anything was.

        We were chasing the game against Reading and Arsenal when we went 442, had some momentum and looked ok. Not one person can convince me that we haven’t only sent the supporters into sheer panic mode once we adopted it from the start, stripping our diabolical midfield of assistance when they were struggling to start with. We have. What was boring and frustrating has evolved into woeful and hopeless with two up front.

      • The thing that worries me is that the 2 performances you mention are likely to come against Man Utd and Chelsea, and could ultimately count for nothing.

      • So long as it is Graham dropped to the bench for an additional midfielder then that is a price worth paying as he has for one reason or another been anonymous.

        Get McClean or N’Diaye or some work horse in to the middle, drop Johnston to the bench also, as his effort and form is currently poor. We need players who can get forward and support Sess and Fletcher, mind you it hasn’t happened all season long so don’t expect miracles.

  4. Pete says: “It was tetchy and argumentative and looked like a group of players who no longer enjoy each other’s company or professional respect.”

    Yes…..the £250k for the week in Dubai was money well-spent, wasn’t it?

    They have another weekend now without a PL game (although some of them might have to put a shift in with their national team) so why not spend this one at Seaburn instead of Dubai and ask themselves some questions about team spirit, commitment and professional pride?

  5. Very well observed article .Sadly it seems tha MON is not quite the magician we had hoped. Whether this is just a blip and he has some we exciting new spells that he can weave we shall see. Worryingly though it is entirely possible that in his two years out of the game he has been left a bit his magic wand abit rusty. I hope I am wrong, but I too recall the McMenemy debacle.

    For me the success of any team is based around a balanced, hard working intelligent midfield, and that is our main weakness, but sadly not our only one. We need more pace, energy and strength in central defence, and I would also like too see a central defender with the ability to carry the ball out of defence and start an attack rather than just hoof it hopefully up to Fletcher .But for now we have to make do with what we have and hope that soemone steps up to the plate and we get a bit of luck that will save our well fried bacon.

    A replacement for MON? If the likes of him Keane,Bruce and McCarthy can’t make a decent job of it then who can? I have no idea.I suspect there is no magic formula involved in selecting a manager, and a lot of it comes down to pure luck . I think we should go down the Clint Eastwood route and ask prospective candidates just this one question.
    ‘D’ya feel lucky punk? D’ya?’

    In the meantime here’s hoping the magic wand has had a bit of service.

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