Second season syndrome: How can O'Neill turn it around at Sunderland
22:00 GMT, 2 November 2012
Hard times: Martin O'Neill roars during the midweek defeat to Middlesbrough
Martin O’Neill faces former club Aston Villa at the Stadium of Light after a disappointing start to his first full season at Sunderland.
O’Neill was the only manager the fans wanted when Steve Bruce was sacked 11 months ago and, as a proven, cup-winning self-confessed Mackem, he was supposed to take the club into a new era.
But this week’s embarrassing Capital One Cup defeat to Middlesbrough was a major blow and his under-fire team have the worst goals and shots on target totals in top flight European football, and all four divisions in England.
O’Neill cut a defiant figure at his press conference, saying: ‘I would expect to be judged over a season. People can say what they want, I can’t change it. The only way I can change it is by winning some football matches.’
Things need to change — and fast — but what is it that is going wrong at Sunderland
A CRISIS OF CREATIVITY
Adam Johnson, James McClean and Stephane Sessegnon all look terrified on the ball and are making basic mistakes. McClean was the sensation of last season but opposition scouts have identified his weaknesses and he is struggling. Most teams put two men on him and have realised that he struggles when forced to cut back on to his right foot.
Summer signing Johnson, brought in from Manchester City for 10million, has been a disappointment. He may have been affected by a thigh injury he picked up on England duty as well as the weight of expectation because of his price tag.
Sessegnon is one of the most naturally gifted players Sunderland have ever had. But he’s played more like Milton Nunez than Lionel Messi this season. He’ll say it’s not related, but fans are asking why he looks so disinterested since signing his new contract. Eight goals and nine assists last season have been followed by none this campaign.
Falling down: Stephane Sesssegnon (centre) has been unproductive this season
A STRIKER LIGHT
Summer signing Steven Fletcher scored five in four, but has now gone four matches without a goal. And who is Sunderland’s second top scorer Newcastle’s Demba Ba, who scored an own goal in the derby draw. O’Neill clearly doesn’t feel he has many options to help Fletcher either. The club’s other strikers — Fraizer Campbell, Ji Dong-won, Connor Wickham and Louis Saha — have played just 406 minutes between them.
Solo effort: Steven Fletcher has netted five of Sunderland's six Premier League goals
The Stadium of Light crowd is notoriously difficult to please. Naturally pessimistic, Sunderland fans are at their worst when expectations are high, as they were at the start of the season. More than 40,000 are expected to bait Darren Bent, which will delight chairman Ellis Short, but they need to be patient and understanding. Attendances could dwindle unless performances and results improve.
O’Neill said: ‘The players are saying in the dressing room they’re a bit surprised (at the reaction) because they’ve only lost one game. Maybe they need to gamble a bit more and take risks. If you lose the ball once or twice, you have to have the confidence to go again.’
Fickle fans: The Stadium of Light faithful are tough to please
THE DRAW DEMONS
Sunderland by numbers
12: The number of shots on target Sunderland have had this season – the lowest in the league and 18 fewer than the next best team
42: Sunderland’s attempted shots this season, the lowest in the league.
0: The Black Cats are the only Premier League team not to have hit the woodwork this season.
28.57%: Sunderland have the worst shooting accuracy in the Premier League.
30: Sunderland have had the fewest shots off target in the league.
Finally Sunderland had their Messiah. A boyhood Sunderland fan, who can roll out the stats, matches and memories. Destiny may seem a bit strong, but that was what fans believed.
O’Neill said: ‘I came in last season and joked that having an affiliation with Sunderland might give me a couple of games.
‘I’ll be judged on football matches. I’ve completed 11 months here and my ambition is to build a side that fans can be really proud of and can actually make an impact in this league.’
He got off to a terrific start with Bruce’s under-achieving squad, winning 10 out of 17 games and reaching the quarter-finals of the FA Cup.
But they’ve never really recovered from the dreadful home defeat to Everton. They have drawn 11 of 16 games since, including disappointments at the tail-end of last season against Bolton and Wolves.
They are hard to beat but that’s not enough.
Tough to beat: Simon Mignolet saves from Stoke's Peter Crouch
SO WHAT NOW
You can understand why O’Neill has persevered with his creative players. On their day, they win matches.
He says he will put it right on the training ground, but it’s a test of his famous man-management skills
O’Neill had a similar run in his first season at Villa, winning one in 13, and look how he transformed them.
He’s not about to walk out on this one. Sunderland mean too much to him. But he knows he needs to start finding answers soon.