From The Durham Times: Vaughan & Wickham Can Revitalise Sunderland

Christopher Lee

Every week we provide our views on all things SAFC to our favourite newspaper, The Durham Times. Follow them on Twitter @DTSport, and also support the local press by buying a copy every Friday for just 50p. Here's our latest column there.

From a strictly Sunderland perspective, the game at Anfield was probably the toughest 90 minutes of the season to watch. The game was over pretty before it got going and Liverpool were made to do absolutely nothing special to comprehensively beat Sunderland out of sight.

Fatigue unquestionably played a big part in the lacklustre nature of the Black Cats' performance. After gruelling games defending for their lives against Manchester City and trying to chase Tottenham's thoroughbreds around the pitch, it was evident that there simply wasn't anything in the legs left to give.

The fact that all three of the Liverpool goals came from a pass made within their own half is testament to the total absence of a discernible pressing game and energy from Sunderland and, for all there have been troubles on Wearside this season, those are accusations that could not have been laid at the players' feet before this game.

Martin O'Neill was quick to cite tiredness in his post-game analysis and it is impossible to dismiss it, although that does lead to frustrating questions of the manager.

To put it into context, nine of the side who started at Liverpool started all four of the club's festive fixtures, and the two have dropped out of the side, Danny Rose and John O'Shea, were forced out. To put it another way, no one was given a rest at all by design.

Sunderland's squad is small, but it is not tiny. If the manager suspected fatigue was going to be a factor in this period, as it always is, then one has to ask why he didn't make more changes to the side over the last ten days. There were options and opportunity to freshen up the side considering that sat on the Anfield bench were five full internationals and the current first choice striker for the England under-21s.

O'Neill can't bemoan a fixture pile-up he had all season to prepare for and then do nothing to micro-manage the situation. The second he has made an active choice to ignore the options he has, he no longer has the luxury of using tired legs to excuse such a poor performance. It simply doesn't work like that.

Is it so hard to believe in the likes of David Vaughan and Connor Wickham? I think we all know that neither are O'Neill's first choices but if the club are paying them good money then what is the harm in using them to freshen up the side when required?

Similarly, it was clear from the get-go that James McFadden was at Sunderland primarily to provide cover and try to stake some kind of claim for a longer deal, but how is that supposed to happen when his services are not called upon when the opportunity arises? You have to accept that there are concerns over his fitness, but then again there were concerns about everyone's fitness following so many outings in such a small period of time.

The fact of the matter is that the modern game has changed. The pace is quicker and the demands on players are greater. For Sunderland, it is also compounded by O'Neill's willingness to play without the ball for large periods of games. There is merit to be found in all tactical plans, and we must be careful of prescribing to the myth perpetuated by the mass-media that insists there is one 'right way' to play football that we should all aspire to, but running around chasing the ball is by its very nature more physically demanding than stroking it around yourselves.

Something here has to change, because for all I rate O'Neill and am delighted to have him, there is a fundamental wider point that asking players to do something that you know they are incapable of doing - specifically tackling a challenge with the required energy to compete on this case - is just bad management.

With that said, considering the four very difficult games I am sure most of us would have gladly taken six points from the twelve on offer before hand, so it is far from a disaster. Lets just hope reinforcements are on the way this January - preferably ones that O'Neill actually trusts enough to allow onto the pitch.

MICHAEL GRAHAM

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