Posted: 10:42 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013
By Tim Palmer
So much of the focus around Sunderland in the past few months has understandably been on Paolo Di Canio himself, hardly helped by Di Canio constantly talking about himself in the third person. There was the furore about his political beliefs, then his famous "rant" on the club's supposedly poor culture, followed by the ongoing pledge to spark a revolution and very public criticism of certain players.
Even once the actual football started, there was very little discussion of the style -- instead, we've seen headlines about Di Canio "attacking" captain John O'Shea and striker Ji Dong-Won, the manager being sent to the stands by Martin Atkinson in the Crystal Palace fixture before, in what will go down as the last memorable moment of his short reign, the bizarre attempt to seemingly apologise to the travelling fans after a 3-0 defeat at West Bromwich Albion.
Di Canio appears wildly unpredictable, but in many ways, so much of this was unsurprising. That extends to the new style he's attempted to implement on the pitch -- although it was been talked up by Di Canio as a bold, new, ‘modern', approach...
"when we have the ball, I want us to be 4-2-4 with the wingers, pushing forward to join the attack and the full-backs moving up. We want to attack, we want to entertain and we want to score goals and the players we have brought in will make us much more able to do that."
...it was actually rather predictable, both in its intent and its failings.
Di Canio's first primary concern when taking over in the autumn was about raising the "energy" and "commitment" of the players after eight straight games without a win, and while these remain intangibles, there was a discernible difference in Sunderland's attitude without the ball. They closed down higher up the pitch, with Di Canio asking the centre-forwards to press opposition centre-backs ferociously, in a marked change from the conservative approach that his predecessor, Martin O'Neill, adopted.
Although Di Canio wanted to distinguish himself from O'Neill as much as possible, his impact was actually very similar to the Irishman's. Neither got their team playing particularly good football when they took over, but the main difference was in confidence and motivation, sparking a short-term upturn in form.
Curiously, both seemed oddly reliant on long-range strikes -- the sheer amount of goals from distance Sunderland scored in the immediate first days of O'Neill was ridiculous, while the 3-0 victory over Newcastle, hailed as Di Canio's most decisive match, is memorable for the sheer quality of the goals scored by Stephane Sessengon, Adam Johnson and Craig Gardner.
However, both those key factors -- intense closing down, and goals from distance- - are hardly things you want to build a playing style upon, because it's unrealistic to expect players to preserve such high levels of fitness over a 38-game season as well as being able to maintain Gareth Bale-like levels of conversion from range.
Yet Di Canio continually insisted in pre-season that his players would be the fittest in the Premier League, putting them through a gruelling series of "traditional" training methods, while overseeing a ludicrous amount of change in personnel in the transfer window.
In that respect, Di Canio's tenure was always going to fail. It's amazing that after seeing how allowing O'Neill and Bruce to overspend on British players, the board allowed Di Canio to overspend on continental imports -- there hasn't been a balance in Sunderland's transfer dealings for about three seasons now, and that confusion has extended onto the pitch.
Take the starting XI for the West Bromwich game -- half of the defence consists of Jack Colback and John O'Shea, two typical ‘O'Neill' players, while the other two defenders are Modibo Diakité and Ondrej Celustka, very much ‘Di Canio' style footballers. Let alone the fact that in signing fourteen new players, Sunderland neglected to replace one of their better outfield players, the on-loan Danny Rose, instead shoving a midfielder into the full-back position -- It's an odd mix of personalities, and the sheer amount of new faces has had an obvious impact on team cohesion.
The unfamiliarity might be forgivable if there were any signs of gelling, but there isn't. It's ironic after pledging to change Sunderland's culture, Di Canio's ended up with team that feels awfully familiar. It's an ambitious but alarmingly open 4-4-2, with an over reliance on inconsistent wingers and perhaps unforgivably, when things aren't going their way, frustrating, aimless long passes from the back towards players completely unequipped for this style of play.
Watching Ji and Fabio Borini flounder around while passes were aimed for their heads has been one of the most uninspiring tactical moves in the Premier League this season, especially when Sunderland have actually played neat football out from the back at times, only to abandon the game plan when behind -- hardly an endorsement of the "mental toughness" Di Canio wanted to instil.
So for all the talk of a Sunderland overhaul, Di Canio's tenure has actually turned out rather similarly to that of his predecessor, albeit over a much shorter period of time -- an immediate upturn in results thanks to improved confidence and fortunate long-range shots, before a misguided spending spree on a certain type of player that has failed to produce consistently on the pitch, leading to a lack of confidence and the manager being sacked as a result.
With so many new faces, many of whom unable to speak English, not coming to grips with a half-hearted playing style, facing a tough run of fixtures coming up against Liverpool, Manchester United, Newcastle United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, Sunderland's new manager will likely be someone the "motivational" type, one able to man-manage the squad's bubbling tension -- the very reasons why O'Neill and Di Canio were appointed.
It's difficult to see when the cycle will end for Sunderland.