O’Neill is no longer resuscitating Bruce’s Sunderland: midfield is dead on arrival

Stephen Goldsmith writes: I refuse to get too carried away with all the doom and gloom just yet – as tempting as that may be! You certainly won’t be hearing me shout for a change in management amid all this poor show of form. The national media are particularly mystified as to why the Sunderland fans are keeping their patience with O’Neill, in an almost identical manner in which they were mystified as to why we wanted their pal Bruce out last season. Double standards springs to mind. The crux of it all is that last season’s mini-revival highlights the amazing impact that O’Neill had when he came here. Who can argue that the Ulsterman’s arrival resulted in a below average squad performing above themselves? They have now plateaued and it isn’t pretty. Had Bruce still been here we would be playing Championship football, a fact which nobody should doubt.


O’Neill bought big with Fletcher and Johnson, and few could argue that the Scotsman is keeping his side of the bargain. His goal return is more than acceptable; especially feeding off the proverbial scraps. Johnson’s situation is more complex. The extra attention afforded to James McClean by additional markers last season was supposed to be addressed by the arrival of the England winger to play on the opposite flank. The Derry man’s lack of form and subsequent omittance from the starting eleven has now resulted in the former Manchester City man receiving the exact same treatment. That isn’t to say Johnson is free of criticism, he has under performed afterall. But new signings often attract the brunt of the fans’ anguish during their post match pint when there are far more worrying factors. It’s the central midfielders that are falling way short in performance levels, in my opinion. It is they who I am most concerned about.

Looking at Gardner in particular, despite his ability to grab a long distance goal here and there, he struggles to etch any kind of authority onto the game when employed in a two man central midfield.

As does Vaughan.

As does Larsson.

In fact, Larsson’s minimal contribution, wherever he is on the pitch, is becoming too damn frustrating for words. He’s a bit of a ‘Match of the day’ player these days – looks effective on highlight shows but offers little in all truth. Hell, he doesn’t even score them free kicks anymore. It’s a damning indictment of Gardner et al that the Swede is being accommodated into our midfield at all costs.

Watching them all toil along without significance is beginning to resurface memories of Mick McCarthy’s industrious midfield men; players signed due to Big Mick’s inability to distinguish the difference between what the Premier League and The Championship separately require of a successful midfielder. Memories, such as that 15 point side, I wish to keep eternally locked in the back of my brain – alongside embarrassing alcohol induced incidents from my late teen years. Being willing to “put a shift in” falls painfully short in what many deem the most competitive league in the world. The Q.P.R performance was a little too close to that infamous team for my liking. We obviously have much better players than that side, though a lack of confidence and direction can make that fact irrelevant. I remind you of that West Ham side that were relegated in 2003 – despite their array of stars such as Di Canio, Defoe, Carrick, Cole and Sinclair.

'Zenden can't play in a three man midfield. I'll go sign more of the same to replace him then'

It’s quite ironic that as Bolo Zenden departed from these parts, Mr. Bruce told us all that he didn’t play as much as he (and I) would have liked because, although he was highly influential in a three man central midfield, he didn’t perform to expected levels in the planned two man alternative. He promptly went and signed Craig Gardner and David Vaughan – both of whom, unless I’m mistaken, also excelled for their previous clubs in a three man midfield. Strange logic if you ask me and we’re seeing the effects of this miscalculation now. Both these players had their moments  performing decently in the middle of the park for the lads last season, but did so with Sessegnon often playing as the lone striker as well as an extra midfielder employed to help out. Even then we had Sessegnon instinctively dropping deep to offer extra assistance there. In the games that the Benin man played behind Nicklas Bentdner, what was it the fans lambasted the Dane for? Dropping deep. It’s becoming clearer why he felt the need to do so now.

When I mentioned a few weeks back how Lee Cattermole carried autonomy for us in a similar way that Vieira did for Arsenal, it was met by some with a bit of scepticism. While I perhaps should have made myself clearer in the fact that I wasn’t comparing their individual skills, ability or styles of play, I can’t help feel that it’s becoming an alarmingly worrying matter of fact that our captain is alone in the ability to be a consistent and effective Premier League central midfielder. While some will point out that he isn’t creative, his presence as the anchor and driving force is there for all to see. These players need to be in place for the creative players to flourish. In fact, it’s worrying that a player of this nature is looking like a stand out performer. These guys are supposed to be the unsung heroes in a side, casually allowing the flair players around them to take all the plaudits and be the darlings of the crowd. Only we football anoraks appreciate players tracking, tacking and helping preserve the shape of the side as a unit. It’s safe to say that the last thing we need now is for Catts to be risked in a game in which he isn’t really fit for, and then to get injured and sidelined even further. Oh wait…..

Stephen Goldsmith ponders midfield failings.

Then we have Jack Colback. I also did a little piece on Colback recently, proposing he can be a big player for us. I stand by my judgment of him at that time – I clearly state that he’d progress in a side playing well. While last season he continually showed that he looked to be on the verge of breaking out of his shell, this season is suggesting that those signs were possibly him being at his peak. I won’t be too harsh on Jack – and I don’t agree that he should become subject of this witch hunt that appears to be gathering momentum. For what it’s worth, I feel he is a player who looks like he can perform in a two man central midfield.

But while last season’s mini-revival paved the way for Colback to present his ball retention qualities as a positive to us all, forty thousand despondent eyes are now fixing on the decision making of every single player in the middle of the park. The impression of Jack “being tidy” is abruptly substituted with him “passing the buck” when the team isn’t performing. A victim of circumstance, quite possibly, but either Jack finds an extra 20% or a move to The Championship looms. It’s all a bit reminiscent of the way Grant Leadbitter’s Sunderland career started and ended. Such comparisons may appear lazy on the surface, especially as the players are quite different – but they are relevant.

The point is, a local lad will always be awarded with more patience and reasoning from a football fan, no matter what kind of player they are. The dynamics of that rule start to change when a team is struggling, however, and while Leadbitter got forward to create and score, Colback’s reluctance to do so is causing the ceasing of this very patience.

And what about David Meyler? Oh, I don’t have time….

The conclusion is there for all to see. A central midfielder who actually wants the football, and has a real presence is a must. Sixer has made the excellent point that we may well be in a position so precarious come January, that trying to attract any player will be like flogging a dead horse. The one criticism of MoN that I have is that he didn’t go down this route in the summer. Top, imposing midfielders are the catalysts of successful teams. Take Fellaini away from Everton and would they be the same? And Newcastle are already finding out just how important Cabaye was for them by his absence. It’s as obvious as that nose on Mick McCarthy’s face. He needs to be able to do more than “put a shift” in though.

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30 thoughts on “O’Neill is no longer resuscitating Bruce’s Sunderland: midfield is dead on arrival”

  1. I always assumed he restricted his full backs from getting beyond the wingers. Worrying that they aren’t, when he hasn’t!!

  2. “I was thinking about adding the audio of him answering my questions as a regular feature on here, what do people think?”

    I think it’s a great idea. Do it soon before he leaves eh? 😉

    He was mentioning that about the FBs in the Echo. He thinks that they both need to push on a bit before letting blaze. You would think professional footballers would need slightly different coaching/advice to 11 year old bairns though wouldn’t you?

    • Your point about coaching/advice is a good one, and constantly baffles me. O’Neill recently remarked that he would like his front players [ have we got some? ] to follow the ball in to pick up any spills from the ‘keeper. Didn’t they learn that at school? Additionally, are they not aware that for corners and free-kicks to be a threat, it does help if you can occasionally get it past the first defender?

  3. He did tell me on Friday that he’s already thinking about the market in January.

    And Colin, I asked him about the lack of shooting in the QPR game and he said they have been practising shooting in training this week but doesn’t want them shooting for sake of it like his fullbacks have been doing.

    All said to me directly but I have to clearly state I was representing Sun FM at the time – Sunderland’s number 1 radio station.

    Hahahaha

    Actually, I was thinking about adding the audio of him answering my questions as a regular feature on here, what do people think?

  4. You could be right lads. It’s maybe a sign of sheer panic, etc that I’m suggesting such a thing. We are stuck with Jack C then and that’s it. That’s not the answer and MON realises it judging by his comments in the Echo. It’s at least one tough month ahead at the very least without LC. Dreadful state of affairs.

  5. O’Shea’s legs have went – explains why he can’t play a high-line. I think him playing CM would be a disaster.

  6. I think there’s a big difference between the passing requirements for a centre back and that of a midfield player Salut. I always liked O’Shea as a midfield player when he was at OT. He’s capable of playing effective one-twos etc and can tackle. In the absence of Meyler I think it’s worth consideration.

  7. I agree Malcolm. It’s an excellent point ifos. The “defence” hasn’t looked bad at all but it’s easy to see why when you consider that it consists of six players and not four!

    Has Wes Brown’s retirement been announced officially yet? What a waste of money he’s been.

    In the absence of Cattermole I wonder whether after Killa’s performance the other night it may be worth shoving O’Shea into the middle of the park. He’s a versatile player O’Shea and has played in midfield a lot during the earlier part of his career.

    • But can we trust him to pass to a teammate, Jeremy? He rarely does from other positions and that becomes a bit of a liability in midfield. Centre back is his best role.

  8. There are too many concerns about our midfield to mention really. The biggest one for me is that if you take away the defensive nature of it O’Shea and Cuellar becoming more exposed and the claim that the defence is solid will be put, cruelly, to the test. The central defence simply isn’t good enough, or quick enough, to cope without the cover of two defensive central midfielders, consequently the wingers become absolutley vital to creating anything for the forwards and that just isn’t happening at the moment.
    I do think that our midfielders are aware of the total lack of pace at the back and consequently are reluctant to get forward and leave gaps in behind for the opposition to run into. MON does need to buy a midfielder and allow Cattermole to just sit in front, but he also need a top quality central defender to free the midfield up and allow them to take some more risks. Just my opinion, but I do think some of our problems stem from a real lack of pace at the back, as well as midfield.

  9. Goldy. I know you are. We are very much in agreement here, and Cattermole is going to be badly missed. I just wish that people would stop talking about HIM as the problem when it clearly isn’t. Colback is part of the problem because he is ridiculously negative and is as likely to get in the box (perhaps even less likely in truth) than John Kay used to. It’s the combination that is the problem in the centre of the field. We had this problem once before when Keane was the manager and signing Andy Reid solved that problem at that particular time. We also had Darryl Murphy starting out wide. Thinking about him reminds me of a couple of our current starters 🙁

  10. Cattermole does pass the ball well in terms of his limited ambition at using it. He can not, just can not play a dewfence splitting ball, He knows he can’t. It’s not all about Cattermole,. Every team needs a Cattermole but it also needs a play maker as Wiliam C says. Part of the problem when anyone criticises the midfield is that the pro Catts lobby get the hump. It’s not all about him.

    • It isn’t, no. My point is that – as you say – every team needs one to be a platform for the creative ones. I’m agreeing that it’s exactly what we need.

  11. I agree with most of the above regarding midfield woes. I am baffled that both Bruce and O’Neill could not see what to the average spectator is blindingly obvious. As things stand we do not have a creative central midfield player. Cattermole is good at one aspect of the game, but hopeless in the other [ cannot pass and lacks vision ] Colback is a one-dimensional player and probablly playing above his pay-grade. Gardner is not really a central midfield player – his specialty is breaking forward to get a shot on goal, and his effectiveness depends on playing to a system which encourages this. Sunderland don’t play that style. Vaughan is a continuity player, and IMO is the best of a poor lot. My first pick [ of the present group ] would be Cattermole [ does break up play and can tackle ] and Vaughan [ can pass and has some vision ]
    Our potential creativity is from wide players – Larsson, Johnson, McClean [ with reservation ] and, I would advocate, Sessegnon [ who is not a striker in a month of Sunday’s ] I think O’Neill’s game-plan should be to instruct his midfield two to win the ball and get it wide. To his wingers, get in crosses.
    This approach needs the team to play two strikers. I would try Wickham alongside Fletcher. He [ Wickham ] has a poor first touch, but he is tall, strong and decent in the air. Fletcher is good in the air and on the ground. He will score if he gets any ball.
    O’Neill has to change the present approach. You cannot win games unless you score goals, and we simply don’t offer any goal threat at present. Draws are probably not going to keep us in the PL.
    In January O’Neill should attempt to bring in a creative midfield player, a back-up striker, a centre- half and a right back – loans will suffice if there is no transfer budget.

    • I think Catts is a better passer than people give him credit for. But as I said, it’s alarming that he’s standing out. Our lack of midfield presence rules out 442 for me. We’d get overran more than we already are.

    • Something has to change. He tried playing Gardner as a striker against QPR for the first 10 mins. Wickham might be useful Saha is more experienced but never looks like scoring. Wickham at least looks like scoring sometimes and does so for England u21s.

      But we’re back to the dilemma: a midfield who can actually supply. I mean, we might have Aguero up there and it still makes no difference if he never touches the ball.

  12. I’m going to be repetitive here but I feel the problem is not so much with the personnel but with the way the team are playing with so little movement off the ball. Apart from Rose no one is attacking with pace, but when we do have possession the player with the ball has few options.

    I agree Colback looks static, Gardner and Larsson are not making defence splitting passes, but the whole game (until we go two nil down) looks like the little warm up two touch routine we see before kick off. Passes are kept short and often to a player who is more closely marked than the one making the pass – so it goes back. Colback passes back and there is no movement to create options for Cuellar, Bardsley, whoever.

    Fletcher is dropping back more and more and to stick up (a bit) for Johnson, if he does try and take a player on no-one is busting a gut to get up into the box. I can’t see bringing in new players being the answer if the rest of the team are going to continue with their pedestrian approach. For me the answer is on the training ground and on coaching methods and game plan.

    • I hear you, but a dominating central midfielder would change the whole dynamics of the side. Extra drive and autonomy would build confidence and automatically create space.

      O’Neill has his systems in his head and is building to get there. It’s not the way all would do it but it’s his way. We have to trust in it.

    • You won’t find me disagreeing with any of that Malcolm. I actually feel Colback, especially at his age, could definitely be our best all-round player in midfield. He can pass, tackle, make forward runs and shoot but we rarely see it because of the tactics you mention. His current form, which is poor without question, is merely a symptom of it for me.

  13. Excellent posts from Goldy and Ian I think. What we need is someone with the drive to get forward and to charge into the box through the middle.

    Huddlestone would have been perfect for us.

  14. Basically you’re right, we are losing it in midfield.
    We have no-one that can unlock a defence and we are simply bossed, even by the likes of QPR.
    Our back 4 are OK, our forward two are basically OK in Fletch and Sess (now he’s finding some form), but our midfield is where we’re lacking.

    Colback is too lightweight and a bit negative and doesn’t make that many forward runs. Gardner can be bossed and runs forward with his head down and often chooses the wrong pass. Vaughn is OK, but very inconsistent. he can have a blinder of a game followed by four no-shows (Kenwyne Jones-esque).
    Cattermole I do rate however. He is essential to us as a break up player and brings some steel. But goals are not in his game.

    What we desperately need is someone like Kevin Nolan who is commanding and makes forward positive runs. A Clint Dempsey with energy and penetration. A Dembele with his strength. Dare I dream of a Yaya Toure. I mean, you get the picture: strong, commanding and positive with goals in his game. It will cost, but its what we desperately need.

    If Fletch is supplied, he’ll get the goals no prob.

    • I was gutted when I heard Stoke were to sign Tom Huddlestone in the summer. He failed a medical and now has played his way into the England squad with his performances for Spurs.

      I’d drive him up here myself – his superb range of passing and overall presence would be perfect for us.

      • I agree with his presence and passing ability. Got a good shot on him too. -If- he can keep injury free, he is ok.

  15. There are three problems with the midfield.

    Fletcher arrived having scored with more headers last season than anyone else in the PL. That was in a side relegated to boot. This season he hasn’t scored once with his head.

    We expected crosses to come from both wings and they haven’t. That point explains the one above.

    In the absence of any penetration or delivery from the wingers it becomes even more important that the central midfield can pose an attacking threat. Vaughan has the potential to do that but doesn’t get picked. Most of the time since August Gardner has been at full back. When he got back in the midfield he found the net. He has shoved Larsson out of the way on free kicks; another reason why there are fewer goals arguably. Both of them can’t of course take the same free kick.

    Cattermole and Colback have no instinct to make runs into the box. They just don’t. Meyler is more of the same but he’s not there anyway. There’s nothing complicated with understanding the problem but we don’t have either the freedom or perhaps the cash to put it right even in Jan.. If there was money to spend how come most of our signings in the summer and since were freebies? (Saha, Cuellar and McFadden).

    It would also help considerably if Fletcher had someone playing off him as a partner. I would push McClean up there with him at Carrow Road. Something has to be tried to eliminate the slow build up and predictability.

  16. Like the article. Midfield is all over the place, colback has been terrible this season. His asset is supposed to be neat and tidy play. however he seems to constantly lose the ball in the most dangerous areas. No flair no composure no vision!

    Think your right about the opposition doubling up on Johnson this season as apposed to Mcclean last season. Adam can’t flourish when there is no other attacking outlet for him to create space.

    Fletcher is feeding off scraps and doing a fantastic job with the lack of chances.

  17. I’m sure that most people would have expected our attacking potential to come primarily from Johnson and McClean but clearly neither is yet firing on all cylinders.The focus then becomes the midfield which as we are witnessing lacks pace guile and creativity.If we remember that Larson,Gardner and Vaughan were all part of relegated sides I suppose it’s not surprising.The squad is light years ahead of the Nightmare 2 squad but we have brought pressure on ourselves by failing to beat Villa and QPR.It might be whistling in the dark but our seven away games have all been against clubs in the top eleven of the league (OK so our home games have been against the bottom half ) Reading looks crucial if we are to keep out of the bottom three by Christmas.Keep the Faith

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