With Steven Fletcher and Adam Johnson arriving at Sunderland, manager Martin O’Neill has given himself room to employ a number of formations, rotate the squad and allow him greater tactical freedom to pick a first eleven to counter his opponents. If, as rumoured, O’Neill can land John Guidetti then he will have a number of options up front and has the luxury to change systems should he see fit as well as boosting Sunderland’s goal threat.
After a great start to his Sunderland career last season, O’Neill’s side tailed off winning just one of their final 10 league games. Arguably the players at his disposal weren’t quite what the Northern Irishman needed to implement his style of play and after a relatively quiet beginning to this season’s transfer window his latest signings will help shape Sunderland into the side he wants see.
When Sunderland played Arsenal they set-up in a 4-5-1 and by all accounts produced a thoroughly disciplined, well-drilled performance. What wouldn’t have escaped O’Neill’s eye was the fact that Sunderland only had 30% of possession and managed four shots on goal. Granted the opposition was Arsenal but moving forward O’Neill will want the Black Cats to have more of a foothold in games and make their presence known.
In terms of footballing philosophy O’Neill’s sides have favoured quick breaks with the emphasis on getting the ball out to the wide men and relying on pace to get the better of opponents. Wide players have always played an important part in any of O’Neill’s footballing outlook. At Leicester he had Steve Guppy, in Scotland Didier Agathe and Alan Thomson provided the service at Celtic and Ashley Young bore the creative burden at Aston Villa. O’Neill though is not one to straitjacket himself to one formation and has employed 3-5-2, 4-4-2, 4-5-1 or derivations thereof throughout his career so expect him to continue his tactical tinkering at Sunderland.
The arrival of Steven Fletcher gives Sunderland a genuine goal-scoring threat. Frazier Campbell hasn’t quite cut the mustard yet, Louis Saha’s injury record will, unfortunately, always count against him whilst Connor Wickham and Ji Dong-Won haven’t fully impressed. In Steven Fletcher, O’Neill has a forward who’s demonstrated he can score in the Premiership even in struggling sides. Last term Fletcher netted 12 times for Wolves in the Premier League and scored eight for Burnley in the Turf Moor club’s stint in the top flight. Standing at 6’1, Fletcher scored seven goals for Wolves with his head, a stat the O’Neill can’t have failed to notice. Whether Fletcher is used as a lone striker or in a front two remains to be seen.
Adam Johnson gives O’Neill pace, trickery and flexibility in Sunderland’s midfield. His arrival could actually allow for a fluid attacking three should O’Neill opt for a 4-5-1/4-2-3-1 formation. With James McClean on the left, Johnson on the right and Stéphane Sessègnon playing just off the striker O’Neill has a trio who can interchange positions seamlessly and provide the service for Fletcher to put the ball into the back of the net.
Indeed Johnson could be Sunderland’s equivalent to Ashley Young in this set-up. At Aston Villa, O’Neill regularly employed the naturally right-footed Young out on the left to cut in and whip balls into the box. In fact in Young’s first full season at Villa (2007/2008) he contributed 17 assists and scored eight goals, the following year he set-up 10 goals and again scored eight and in O’Neill’s final year in charge Young created 13 goals and netted nine times.
With that in mind expect Johnson to start out on the right and being instructed to cut in and whip in crosses with his left and take the odd shot at goal, effectively doing the role that Ashley Young did at Villa but on the opposite flank. With the pace and power of McClean on the left, Sessègnon’s guile in the centre and Johnson’s trickery on he right, Sunderland has a trio who can cause grief to any opposition. What Johnson will need to do though is be aware of his defensive responsibilities as well as his attacking duties and most importantly concentrate on his football. Roberto Mancini didn’t fully trust Johnson when he was at City; the Italian was critical of the England International’s lifestyle and application to the game. Johnson, who was infamously caught boozing at a student’s house part in Scotland, will have to remedy that if he’s to fulfill his potential.
Where does this leave Sebastian Larsson? Again the signings allow for squad rotation and tactical tinkering. It’s conceivable that he could be converted into a deep-lying playmaker given that he’s arguably Sunderland’s best passer of the ball in place of either Jack Colback or Lee Cattermole or the Swede could come in for one of Sessègnon, Johnson or McClean should Martin O’Neill wish to rotate his first eleven.
It was observed during his time at Villa, O’Neill tended to place his faith in the same starting eleven week in week out more often than not. He can’t really afford to do that at Sunderland if he wishes to avoid the same slump he experienced last season. What O’Neill has at his disposal is a strong, balanced group of attacking players who can adapt to his system and provide the strength, depth and tactical flexibility and fluidity, which can see the Black Cats improve on their 13th place finish. If he balances his squad right then the real O’Neill revolution could be ready to kick in.