At the time of writing Sunderland AFC have been linked in the press with a whole host of players, from Peruvians and Argentinians to Austrians and Spaniards – even a self confessed Mag fan but as yet only two signings and one of those on loan. We have also witnessed the departure of several long term squad members and a couple of recent arrivals. Stephen Goldsmith sees in this a desire by the manager to impose his own stamp on things and a raising of ambition.
The media speculation surrounding SAFC’s activity in the January transfer window thus far
has certainly been of stark contrast to twelve months ago. Teleport your minds back and you will remember that “less is more”appeared to be the general strategy behind our minimal involvement in it. Martin O’Neill had taken a Steve Bruce side that was akin to a wounded animal, given it urgent medical attention, fed it and watered it. Two loan signings were brought in as cover and people were generally happy with that. It was probably the only transfer window in living memory that didn’t have people working themselves up into a state of euphoria about potentially be Wearside-bound players. Sunderland had embarked on a run that would guarantee Champions’ League football if it were to be sustained over the following season. That was never a realistic possibility of course, but it was thought that with the signings of Johnson and Fletcher a push for a Europa spot was a genuine ambition. Should we fall just short of that, or just keep well away from the bottom half dog-fight, then that would be acceptable too.
What’s became apparent, however, is that the wounded animal analogy was always flawed. The over-achievement of the squad upon O’Neill’s arrival has now been exposed by the level at which they have plateaued. Proof is in the pudding naturally, and that’s why the activity in this particular window could prove to be a symbolic one in the very legacy of Martin O’Neill on Wearside. This incomplete side has been dragged into the transfer window in desperate need of repair. In fact weaknesses in the current side have been so recognizable that none of us could have been under any illusions as to the type of players the Black Cats needed this window. The calamitous actions of the club’s available central defenders over the last couple of months made the reinforcement in that area a no brainer, but it is the potential remedy for our craving of a powerful central midfielder that excites the most.
It goes without saying that the tireless work rate by our midfielders could have been avoided by the inclusion of a competent partner for Lee Cattermole. An additional midfielder who appears at home in a two man central midfield, as opposed to the current crop who appear to be like fish out of water unless employed in the three man alternative. Aside from the erroneous claim that Catts can’t play the ball forward, some additional presence has been desperately required to build a solid platform in the centre of the park – to allow our offensive players to really shine. With Alfred N’Diaye, O’Neill has provided the linchpin of this master plan.
Expectations of Alfred N’Diaye’s importance have been played down by the manager, and some perspective is certainly required from all of us fans. At 22 years old and untested in the Premier League, the Frenchman is far from the finished article. But a solid performance at Wigan was exciting and extremely indicative of his role in the side, efficient anchoring with Adam Johnson being the main benefactor. The Easington born winger was relieved of those defensive duties that have hindered some of his promise here on Wearside and when Lee Cattermole is fit once more, expect the shackles of the other attacking players to come flying off.
The departure of Frazier Campbell and David Meyler are equally symbolic. These are both players who suffered serious injuries, but were Bruce favourites that were never deemed quite good enough by their new manager. The pair were popular players in the dressing room, they were popular with fans, too. They always displayed a realisation of what it meant to represent Sunderland, (remember Campbell disguised in amongst the Sunderland faithful – Ed) indeed O’Neill often acknowledged the positive contributions they had off the field. The niceties are over now though, and we are very much witnessing the shift from Bruce’s Sunderland to O’Neill’s Sunderland.
Despite captain Lee Cattermole being at the club when O’Neill arrived, all managers like to add their own spine to a side. A central defender, central midfielder and centre forward that can help reflect the ideologies of their coach have always been evident in football, that’s nothing new. Before the transfer window had opened I thought I’d seek clarification from the the gaffa that he’d be looking to recruit players that could give him this spine.
He said, ‘I think in time that’s what we’ll be wanting to do – but essentially it’s the same side from a year ago. We’ve taken those two players (Fletcher and Johnson) but a lot of other players who actually were part of the football club, I didn’t really get to know them because they didn’t play that much. Players like Angeleri the others who have now left the club gives us a scope to do something’.
The response was a clear attempt to distance himself from the previous regime’s poor side. There were no overboard rants regarding Sunderland needing to accept their mediocre place in the footballing hierarchy, just a subtle reminder to the powers above, and to any doubting Sunderland fan, that this wasn’t his set of players. Hell, he even mentioned Marcos Angeleri – take that Steve Bruce!
And he has got us to this significant window by maintaining his own footballing beliefs. The patience and trust awarded to his tactical set up has had some pulling their hair out, yet O’Neill has stood strong. He has generally avoided temptation to throw extra midfielders into the engine room and to employ Sessegnon in wider areas, no matter how frustrating it is to see Larsson et al fail to stamp their authority onto enough games. Formations have been tinkered with and altered slightly, but they largely remain consistent with the belief that the competence of O’Neill’s footballing ideology is sound – It’s just been lacking in the correct personnel. That seemed a better option than trying to confuse things with radical tactical changes.
Therefore the arrivals of N’Diaye and Mangane will be judged. With the probable addition of one or two more signings added to the departure of Meyler and Campbell, O’Neill can now barely use reference to Bruce’s Sunderland as an excuse for poor results. The revolution is out of its infancy and more activity in the summer will bring it close to completion. Here’s to our captain returning to the side soon.
*I was talking to Martin O’Neill on behalf of Sun FM.