Behind Enemy Lines - Sunderland
Our experts assess the Boxing Day opposiotion.
Sunderland are a team in transition under new manager Martin O’Neill.
The Black Cats have won two games and lost one since the Ulsterman took over from Steve Bruce.
To find out how O’Neill is impacting in the North East, we spoke to a local journalist and a die hard fan.
The Sunderland Echo’s Graeme Anderson and safc-fans.com co-owner Baz Ainsley help us go Behind Enemy Lines.
MON The Man
O’Neill replaced Bruce earlier this month and his arrival has provided a morale boost among players and fans alike.
“Ever since Peter Reid left Sunderland back in the early 2000s he has been right at the top of people’s wish-lists,” explains Anderson.
“And that is not just because he has such a great track record – it is because he has this link to the club.”
“Its been good to see three strong defensive showings since he took over,” agreed Ainsley.
“We are attacking with more flair and confidence which is great to see. We are all waiting eagerly for the January transfer window to open because no doubt he will want to bring in a striker asap and spend some of Ellis Short's millions.”
Bend It Like Larsson
Much of Sunderland’s positive work this term has involved Swedish wideman Seb Larsson and he has emerged as a real danger from set-pieces.
“Obviously Larsson’s free-kicks have caught the eye and the dead balls are main thing in his armoury,” Anderson said.
“He has not been absolutely outstanding but he has proved himself a good Premier League player. The main thing is that free-kicks and corners have been poor for Sunderland for some time and he has certainly addressed that.”
Ainsley adds: “The lad is still fairly young and needs to work more on his overall passing and marking but his crossing and dead-ball play has been fantastic and without him we would probably be below Blackburn at this point in the season.
“He has become my pre-match punt every week now for first goalscorer and has won me a few quid!”
Striking A Balance
Last season Sunderland had Darren Bent, Danny Welbeck and Asamoah Gyan fighting for places up front. This season all three have gone – and our experts say it’s made a big difference.
Anderson: “Steve Bruce can count himself a little unlucky because – and not necessarily through any fault of his own – he lost Bent, Welbeck and Gyan inside 12 months.
“But if you lose three strikers of that calibre – about £50m’s worth – then you are always going to struggle for goals.”
Tasked with replacing that high profile trio are Nicklas Bendtner, Connor Wickham and South Korean Ji-Dong Won.
“Bendtner has not done well,” laments Ainsley. “He goes missing in games too much and seems to be in love with the touchline. Wickham and Ji are two young strikers who can't carry the burden yet and Frazier Campbell has been injured for nearly two years.”
Anderson added: “He opted for youth and Connor Wickham, a young lad regarded as a real prospect, and Ji, a South Korean who is a little older but also thought to have a real future in the game.”