Sunderland go into tonight’s crucial relegation battle with Reading desperate to arrest the slump that has seen them drop into the bottom 3 of the Premier League.
Just over a year ago, Martin O’Neill was brought to the Stadium of Light to remedy a similar decline in fortunes under previous boss Steve Bruce and the initial response was promising as the former Celtic manager dragged the Black Cats into mid-table safety.
The closed season transfer activity would also have indicated Sunderland were a club looking upwards rather than down when they parted with serious money for Wolves striker Steven Fletcher and Manchester City’s enigmatic but talented winger Adam Johnson. These additions were meant to add an extra dimension to a team carrying the obvious O’Neill stamps of industry and determination and after early promise, particularly from Fletcher, the goals have dried up and ideas are looking thin on the ground.
Sunderland, generally speaking are a well drilled and disciplined outfit, but then this could be said about most Premier League sides. Functionality will only take you so far and Sunderland are struggling to come up with a Plan B when something extra is needed to get results. Is this a lack of options in the playing staff or reliance by the manager to stick to his tried and trusted formula?
When casting an eye over the roster, there is more than enough quality available to see Sunderland through this turbulent period. They have one of Europe’s best up-and-coming goalkeepers in Simon Mignolet, solid defenders like John O’Shea, productive wingers Johnson and McClean and the target-man striker Fletcher. Add to this a combative central midfield and you have all the same ingredients O’Neill has utilised to great effect in his previous engagements at Leicester City, Aston Villa and most successfully, Celtic.
But it is perhaps this dependence on familiarity that is now working against O’Neill in his current role. Opposition managers are finding it increasingly easy to figure out exactly how Sunderland are going to play, and employ counter measures to overcome them. It is now up to O’Neill to adapt and do the same and give his opponents something different and unexpected to think about.
Although the natives in the North East are becoming restless, the situation is far from terminal and three points against Reading will go a long way to easing their relegation fears. But a home defeat to one of the teams also fighting the dreaded drop would sound alarm bells, and historically the Board at the Stadium of Light are not afraid to pull the plug on high profile names if they feel a change of manager is necessary.
If O’Neill can see out the storm and maintain his position through to January, he will seek solace in the transfer window and the likely addition of one or two players of ability could help him keep his job at the club he supported as a boy and where he’ll be desperate to succeed.
Where To Watch Online: Sunderland vs. Reading
The Ulsterman and Brian Clough protege hasn’t suddenly become a bad manager overnight. His enthusiasm and past record are admirable and if anyone can pull Sunderland back from the brink it is him.However, the Premier League is littered with trigger-happy Chairmen ready to press the panic button, and if O’Neill can’t bring something different into his side’s play soon, who would be shocked to see another big name finding themselves out of work?