Perhaps we’ve heard too many bleatings from Sunderland fans that we were the most boring team in the Premier, finished three places lower than the maligned Steve Bruce managed and really just slipped back into old ways. In our latest review of the 2011-2012 season, Bill Taylor strikes a much more positive note …
This is the way the world ends – not with a bang but a whimper.
The world, maybe, but not Sunderland’s season, though it was on a downhill slope for a while.
But this is no longer, as it used to be, a team of losers or players-for-safety who were single-point happy. Not so much interested in scoring as stopping the other side from getting through. Nil-nil was an acceptable default.
It’s simply a squad that has worn itself out through five months of yeoman service since Martin O’Neill took over. A squad that could hardly put a foot right under Steve Bruce but, as often as not, has hardly put a foot wrong under O’Neill.
That couldn’t reasonably be expected to last. To use a military analogy, the Black Cats were like a beaten army led by a self-doubting time-server and retreating in confusion toward the final defeat, the Championship. Until a charismatic, tactical mastermind took over and inspired them to turn, fix bayonets and charge.
They didn’t have to better or even match last year’s 10th place finish, under O’Neill they’ve won a famous victory. Over themselves.
It was inevitable that battle fatigue would set in. As I’ve remarked before, it’s not so much the individual players who were tired, it’s the team as a team. The cracks that were papered over were beginning to show through.
Had MON been brought in earlier (if only!), we’d almost certainly have finished closer to the Mags. Had he splashed more money around in January, we might – but only might – have been in a better position.
I think he did exactly the right thing.
If O’Neill had made wholesale changes, he’d have confirmed in the team’s mind what they must already have been thinking: “Not good enough.” What little confidence remained would have drained away and negated whatever benefits the expensive – and they would have been – new blood brought to the club.
So instead of splashing around silly money, he bought very conservatively. He played the hand he was dealt and boxed clever (Salut: Sunderland – the blog that shamelessly mixes its metaphors!), thus giving himself a chance to see exactly what he’d inherited and what it was capable of.
He transformed tight – or, more accurately, uptight – defensive play into a means of getting forward and scoring goals. This is a squad that can fall back, close the door then turn on a sixpence and move the ball forward.
Lee Cattermole has become less of a loose cannon. Even Nicklas Bendtner discovered a work ethnic he may never have known he had. James McClean started getting games – and goals – the way he never did under Bruce. Asamoah Gyan went from being “the one that got away and took our hopes with him” to “Asamoah who?”
And the team as a whole realised it wasn’t just borderline Premiership/Championship material after all but belonged without any doubt at the top end of the top tier.
There’s a lot of work to be done. But O’Neill now knows well what he has, what he doesn’t have and what he needs.
Forgive me for speaking very generally. I haven’t been able to see enough games this season to pronounce on individual players; who should stay, who should be loaned out, who should be moved on.
(Okay, if a decent offer comes in from a garden-gnome shop, Kyrgiakos can go. And I hope Ji is kept on. He has tons of potential.)
Clearly, the team needs more speed and tenacity up front. Stéphane Sessegnon needs a lot more support. That, of course, is if he stays at the SoL. I have a feeling he might. But he’s been a one-man band for too long and he’s by no means infallible.
So there are changes to be made and a need for rebuilding. That was the case this time last year, too, and it didn’t happen.
As O’Neill said at the end of his note after the Bolton game: “We have got lots to learn.”
He’s already learned a lot. I suspect that five minutes after the final whistle blew against Brandchester United he was spitting on his hands, figuratively if not literally, and getting stuck in.
Come August, he’ll have assembled a team to reckon with; fit to set its sights on Europe. An aspiration that this time last year didn’t even qualify as a dream.