O’Neill’s wide man dilemma: Johnson or McGeady? Where would that leave Seb?

Stephen Goldsmith wonders what's in store for Seb?

Stephen Goldsmith has been lying awake at night pondering the possibilities that face Martin O’Neill and considering the role that Seb Larsson, may or not play in the manager’s thinking.


Cuellar is the first
to sign for Sunderland ahead of the new season, but it doesn’t help answer the question: Just what do you do with a problem like Larsson?

Firstly I would like to take the opportunity to say I hope the condition of Colin’s brother Phil continues to improve. I don’t know Phil, and I barely know Colin but I have been welcomed so warmly it’s hard not to feel touched as I genuinely feel part of the Salut! Sunderland family now. Let’s start filling these pages again.

So our first summer signing has been announced. The arrival of Carlos Cuellar wasn’t the biggest of surprises, considering Martin paid nearly £8 million for his services three years ago and that during pre-season, he became available for a big fat zero. While there is debate on where he is to play (more on that tomorrow) it is obvious that doesn’t help us crack the enigma of O’Neill and his intentions for how we are to play next season. Luckily for us, in the football sense, O’Neill is an adaptable manager who has changed and tinkered with formations over the years. Unluckily for us, in the anticipation sense, this means we still have no idea what his plans are for next season. Who he’s going to bring in and how we are going to play are still very much unclear. It’s like a weird and frustrating sense of excitement of the like I have never felt before during pre-season.

New managers, because that’s what O’Neill still is, generally like to add their own spine to a team when initially recruiting playing staff. Though Cuellar may have been signed as a right back (again, more on that tomorrow), we would all expect to see a central midfielder and a centre forward added to him over the course of the summer. But it is the constant linking to wingers that is intriguing, to the say the least. It is of my opinion that Ireland’s performance in the Euros was the best thing that could have happened to Sunderland. O’Shea has surely shown it can be no more right back for him (look, there’s more on that tomorrow), McClean’s absence has kept him off the international radar for a touch longer, and McGeady stinking the place out means his price tag has effectively halved. I’ve seen a fair bit of McGeady and refuse to jump on the bandwagon that appears to dismiss him as some sort Sam Aiston in disguise; kicking the ball four mile in front of him before chasing it to no avail. If we can get him for anywhere around £5 million, then I think that’s a fine bit of business. Recruiting Adam Johnson in any capacity would be better, obviously, but his astronomical wages threaten to see him rot on the Man City bench for at least another season.
I’m not sure if you’re aware, but I intend to do another piece tomorrow; it will focus on the signing of Cuellar and who exactly will lose out from his signing. Today, however, I aim to focus on our continued interest in wingers, and then debate:
Just what do you do with a problem like Larsson?

Larsson was always onto a winner with the Sunderland faithful; what with the ability to score and create from set pieces. Let’s be honest, what we have had to witness and endure in the form of our players’ capabilities from set pieces has bordered on nothing short of supporter abuse for the last decade or so. Copious amounts of Paul Thirlwell delicately chipping the ball onto the head of the first defender again and again from his corners, is enough to make any grown person send for the white coats. Certainly the reality of some good-looking, down to earth Swedish international coming strolling through the Stadium of Light gates, accompanied by all his world renowned set piece ability was always going seem like something of a godsend. And so it proved. Larsson was proving to be the one positive outcome from the horror show that was Bruce’s final couple of months at the helm. This was due to his overall performances however, as well as his set piece magic.

Now it may seem ridiculous to take this opportunity to announce that I would have had Larsson as second or third in my player of the season last year, yet spent the entire second half of the campaign boldly predicting that O’Neill would replace him. His quality on the ball and terrific work-rate is there for all to see, and it has gone greatly appreciated by a crowd who wish for nothing more than players displaying those two particular traits. So when I kept sharing my prediction with many of my match day acquaintances, it was often met with the disregard and sheer disgust that I had not witnessed since I suggested to a group of co-students that the university could help increase work productivity by banning social networking sites from their library computers. Time to apply the tin hat. Just to give him a mention, a Twitter contact of mine, Mark Carrick, has gone as far as to say that every time he hears Larsson’s name he thinks of me. It appears to be a prediction of some controversy.

Seb Larsson - the enigma machine?

Now I know of plenty of Sunderland supporters who appear to argue the toss with the vast majority of the rest of us. We all know the type, standing in the pub speaking over everybody with their version of events. Appearing to deliberately criticise players who don’t warrant it and declaring the general public stupid for not seeing things the way they do. But if people can look past Larsson’s set piece contribution and hear me out on the reasoning behind my thoughts, I can hopefully avoid being put into the same bracket as these undesirable, yet amusing, supporters who attempt to put the world to rights.

One of the main factors in our turnaround under O’Neill was the way in which he made our wingers change their game. They started dropping deeper than they had previously to collect the balls from our full backs. This resulted in both Bardsley and Richardson appearing to increase their performance levels, and this was, in no small part, down to the simple fact they had an earlier passing option and subsequently spent less time dwindling with the ball at their feet. It was an effective and relevant tactic that not only helped improve the distribution percentages of our defenders, but helped to mount those counter-attacks we have all become accustomed to. This killed Larsson, however.

Larsson isn’t the old fashioned winger type that McClean is and the intensity levels required meant he spent a lot of the game going missing and dictating very little from open play. I realise he played with a hernia problem towards the end but the fact of the matter is, he isn’t the direct and pacey wide-man that O’Neill tends to lean towards. It may seem crazy to suggest that a large percentage of players that made contributions of far less significance than our Seb may escape being axed from the side, but if we are to continue to play in this way then we simply need a more athletic alternative to Larsson. As teams started to double up on McClean towards the season’s climax it often meant they were sacrificing offensive options in doing so. A right-sided version of James McClean would exploit the sometimes hard-to-believe acres of space that presented itself during these games. At Aston Villa O’Neill tended to swap Downing and Young at will and they both had high autonomy levels when it came to how Villa actually played. A fine balance it was. We started to look a little lop-sided when McClean got his game on. The intensity of the new duties required for the O’Neill-type winger proved to be too much physically for Larsson to match up to McClean when launching these fast-paced counter attacks.

If football adopted the approach of American sports and allowed a player to enter the field of play to simply execute a free kick or set piece then Larsson would be invaluable. If the fact is that O’Neill needs to raise significant funds in any way, then Larsson becomes extremely valuable in the amount he could potentially bring in through transfer.
My resilience in the opinion of this matter has declined somewhat since the season drew to an end.

It is indeed an E minus for my normally over-thinking self that I failed to consider that O’Neill may actually change his system for the following season. My assumption on the matter was that O’Neill would continue to employ either the 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 systems that he did last season, when perhaps I should have been thinking more about the bigger picture. It is to O’Neill’s credit that he is a coach that has adapted different formations and systems throughout his career and the likelihood is that he played the formations to suit what he had, rather then attempting to fit the players into a pre-set one. A very possible theory is that he may look at the 4-5-1/4-3-3 next season which means Larsson’s genuine quality may save him and see him favoured into a more central role. Unless I’m mistaken he did this to great effect against Norwich with Campbell pushed out right.

The system we are to play is anybody’s guess though. O’Neill has history with 3-5-2 and this could also see Larsson given a stay of execution due to the lessened intensity a wing-back would need. I feel that the more sides play with one up front (even none now it seems) the more wasteful playing three centre halves has become, however, and the game has evolved from the days when this system was commonplace.

Now I also realise that Italy played this system against Spain in the Euros and achieved a very credible performance in the group game that finished 1-1, and that fact could well contradict this theory. But although I didn’t study this match tactically in any way, my initial thoughts would be that this was game-specific and that the three centre halves played a high line to try and combat all the close narrow interchanging from the Spanish players around the 18 yard area. A formation set for a full Premier League season would have to be more generalised however, and the evidence showed that even when we suffered injuries to fullbacks last season, O’Neill preferred to play midfielders Colback and Gardner in a back four rather than with three centre halves.

To reiterate, I think Larsson is a fine player but you just can’t help noticing the imbalance with him and McClean. It is getting to the point now where I just want to be proved right or wrong.

I can’t wait for O’Neill to make a couple of signings further up the field that may indicate in some way how we are to play, and we have the small matter of friendlies that may also give us some indication of this. But this mystery is killing me, in a nice way if at all possible, and it’s good to finally get my Larsson theory out in the open and away from the pub tables that are propped up by bored drinking partners. I could be spectacularly wrong on this, which is why I have started to crawl back towards the metaphorical fence and am considering hopping back on totally.

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15 thoughts on “O’Neill’s wide man dilemma: Johnson or McGeady? Where would that leave Seb?”

  1. I completely agree Goldy. You are quite right about MON’s preferences. He very much favours the conventional wide player such as Steve Guppy who he has brought in to try and develop our existing wide players to do the sorts of things that he did when he was a player.

    Downing was a typical signing when he was at Villa and he is consistently linked with former players in a similar mould such as McGeady (who looks dismal to me tbh).

    McClean is very much the sort of player that he likes and you can only wonder what might have happened to his career had Bruce been sacked and replaced by Mark Hughes for example. He may have been languishing in the reserves and wishing he was back in Ireland. I suspect that MON has some regard for Larsson and would be hesitant in getting rid of him unless he knows for sure that any alternative is going to work.

  2. I agree, and acknowledged, that it seems odd to question Larsson’s place in the side when we have players who contribute less that I deem as being safe. Absolutely. I’m just going on a hunch based on the kind of winger normally employs.

  3. “Its what O’Neill wants his wingers to be about.” Yes, absolutely it is, and there’s no question that SL is not a winger, at least in the conventional sense. He doesn’t do what wingers do. Maybe he has invented a new position as an extreme right hand side holding midfield player who happens to be a great dead ball specialist.

    He’s the first player we’ve had since Kevin Arnott (Don Huch excepted of course) that can actually shoot and cross properly with a dead ball. Given the paucity of players in three and a half decades who could do this consistently well it seems odd to me that his contribution and ability gets questioned a whole lot more than say the contribution of Kieran RIchardson for example or even David Vaughan and Craig Gardner who are both players that I like (although I’ve never ever been convinced about Richardson who has lived up to the title of former promising youngster and now Man Utd reject),

  4. Paul Thirlwell! My goodness, I had (rather thankfully) forgotten about him.

    Interesting read, but i’m not quite sure what the Seb Larsson problem is exactly. Had made goals and scored them. How come we are not talking about “the Lee Cattermole problem?” as it possibly warranrts a more serious discussion.

    Larsson puts in some graft helping out the defence and gets very little credit for it. He’s not a Summerbee or a Johnston, but I think we get carried way with the notion that because he plays wide that he is going to skin the full back and cross on the run. He isn’t, and never will but that’s not what he’s about. Have we not got rid of the Flying Pharoah yet? Now that’s a problem winger because he doesn’t skin the full back and get a cross in either. He does precious little else either.

    • It’s not what he’s about and there isn’t anything wrong with that. Its what O’Neill wants his wingers to be about.

  5. I’m sure the way we play will be dependent on who is available and who stays. I would say from a number of possibilities MoN has an open mind at this stage. I think there’s even a chance that he will play McClean in a central role – whether from choice or from necessity.

    The other point is about Larsson’s ‘engine’. Human beings are blessed with what are known as fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibres. Those with a preponderance of fast twitch are speedy but lack stamina – and vice versa. It doesn’t take a genius to work out Larsson. He’s a stamina (‘engine’) man who is blessed with footballing ability. We need him either in midfield or at full back. A midfield diamond would suit him nicely but, alas, we don’t have the full backs to make that work.

  6. By replica i didn’t mean somebody who will hug the touch line in exactly the same way. Maybe I should have phrased it differently as that’s what replica means. 😉

    Teams stopped McClean when they doubled up on him. They would be less likely to do this if we had a right winger who was as fast, direct and dangerous. They certainly could ill-afford to utilise four players on our two wingers.

    Having like-for-like means that they could be swapped over at wil,l meaning that the defenders couldn’t familiarise themselves too much with one or the other.

    Even 4-5-1 could see Larsson’s place under threat as we will surely go for a target man and need to find room for Sess remember.

  7. Replicating any player is a dangerous thing, McClean was closed down by clubs towards the end of the season precisely because he tried to do the same thing over and over again, byline and cross. While this may be classic winger play having an identical player on the other side may not be the answer. Larsson is able to swing the ball in from different angles and is more willing and able to read the game on the other side of the pitch and make late runs into the box. I would also argue that even if all the players mentioned in the article are at the club it would simply mean that we had outstanding talent and cover in the wing positions: if only we could say that about every position on the field.

  8. Its always been about O’Neill’s style of play, never about Larsson’s qualities. I acknowledged the fact it seems odd at first glance to suggest that players who have made less significant contributions could be safe.

    The in-balanced shape of our team when attacking, and the openness of the right side of the field, crying out for a replica of James McClean, stood out like a sore thumb last season.

  9. “Mark Carrick, has gone as far as to say that every time he hears Larsson’s name he thinks of me. It appears to be a prediction of some controversy.”

    Have to say it is highly contentious to discuss the replacement of such a key figure, in both ability, uniqueness and attitude, when others are assumed ‘safe’. Maybe that’s the thing, though – no-one is really safe when a new manager begins to mould his own team.

    I’ve been surprised that Richardson has been linked to West Ham, for example, but it just shows O’Neill has his own thoughts.

    The interesting thing, for me, is how to accommodate McClean, McGeady, Johnson & Larsson, so maybe it’s not as controversial as first would appear.

  10. I don’t think he will go for Johnson either.

    Larsson is effective from set pieces but doesn’t have MxcClean’s engine and I think that is relevant. Did I just say all this?

    • I agree with Goldy and think mon always tries t get his sides t stop crosses and that brings more responsibility on the wide men to double up when defending, then playing counter attacking football as we are trying to work towards under mon larssons lack of pace an athletic ability is exposed in open play in the attacking third, I believe he would be at home in a 4 5 1 with pace on the right and seb playing as part of a central 3!

  11. I don’t think MON will go for Johnson. We have that position filled by Larsson. Now if Larsson gets injured, we’re a bit short there, but he does bring delivery and set piece mastery second to none in the team. He was our 2nd top scorer. The only thing with Larsson is that he can get a bit tired. Hasn’t quite got the engine of Mcclean.
    I think Johnson is more of an attacking threat and he’ll get us the same if not more goals than Seb. But, I don’t think he’s quite got the work ethic of a MON player.

    • As Goldy says Johnson’s astronomical wages will probably mean he’s set to stay at Citeh, unless they decide that even saving a bit by loaning him out, whilst paying the bulk of his wages, would make sense if they move for Van Persie.

      Then of course there is the need to have a certain number of home produced players in their squad. I don’t take enough interest in them though to know if that would be an issue should Johnson be allowed to leave.

      As for Seb, I always thought he was better with Bardsley behind him rather than O’Shea. I think most of us agree that O’Shea is a decent enough centre back but vulnerable at full back.

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