Trying to second guess Martin O’Neill isn’t easy, but it seems likely that after the turbulence of the Steve Bruce era Sunderland are returning to a degree of stability under the Northern Irishman. The number of signings brought in by Bruce bordered on the ridiculous, but O’Neill has quickly built a team from the squad he inherited and is a few new faces away from having a side that could challenge for a European place.
O’Neill’s impact last season was immediate. In his first ten games in charge Sunderland earned twenty-two points, form that was not just enough to lift them out of a relegation battle but would have put them in contention for a Champions League place were it maintained for a full campaign. It is also worth noting that the team had taken only eleven points from fourteen games prior to his appointment. O’Neill achieved this without dramatically changing personnel, but he did make the team defend deeper and be more direct with their passing.
However, towards the end of the season Sunderland’s form deteriorated significantly and they finished the campaign without a win in eight games, failing to score in five of them. Clearly goals were a problem. During O’Neill’s opening ten games Sunderland scored seventeen times, but only added ten more goals in the final fourteen games of the season. In contrast Sunderland’s defence was relatively sturdy, conceding only twenty-nine times in twenty-four games, including eight clean sheets. This season Nicklas Bendtner has returned to Arsenal and is yet to be replaced. Reported target Steven Fletcher would provide a proven goal threat to compliment the creativity of James McClean, Sebastian Larsson and Stephane Sessegnon. If Sunderland cannot agree a fee with Fletcher’s club Wolves, it may be that O’Neill looks for a loan signing again to lead the line. Whoever comes in will largely define the club’s season as all other aspects of the team seem secure.
The second season at a club is usually fraught with expectation and pressure, but in having such contrasting periods during the last campaign it already seems like O’Neill has been at the club for years. The early form under their new manager would have given the fans the belief that O’Neill can improve the club, but the dramatic end-of-season decline would also have tempered expectations. This has been O’Neill’s first close season, which would have allowed him to work with the players in pre-season training and bring in any new players he feels necessary. With the exception of a striker, his lack of transfer activity should be seen as a positive, as it suggests he feels comfortable working with the players already at his disposal. With twenty-three players joining the club over the previous three seasons, a degree of stability is exactly what the club needs.