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.
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…..
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.