Captain's Blog: Actions Speaking Louder Than Words For Self-Doubting O'Neill

Matthew Lewis

Martin O'Neill has vehemently denied suffering from self-doubt before, but are his actions now betraying those words?

After the 3-1 defeat at home to Chelsea in December, a BBC reporter asked Martin O'Neill if his struggles at Sunderland had prompted any self-doubt. The response was a predictable mixture of irritated incredulity that such a question had dared been asked and downright defiance. The message the Northern Irishman sent out was clear - he is very much a man of conviction.

At the time, O'Neill was perfectly entitled to the disdain with which he met the question. Results weren't especially inspiring and there was an element of worry over them, but there was method to be found behind it all.

There was a relatively secure defence and a cautious midfield that protected it. Ahead of them there was just enough individual quality to carry some threat, and on the bench there was at least a smidgen of variation to change things around if necessary.

In short, for all it wasn't ideal and it certainly felt transitional and laborious, at least Sunderland were labouring under an identity. And, in fairness to O'Neill, his side went on to win three of the next four games - including one against the reigning champions - to show that the convictions he so single-mindedly stuck to were, at least to some degree, vindicated.

That was then, though. What has happened since January remains a total mystery to just about all of us, but there is one thing that we can be all but certain of - any remnants of a properly considered tactical plan have totally disappeared.

I thought that the signing of Danny Graham was a sensible piece of business. In fact I still think that it can be. It was apparent to everyone that we were a Steven Fletcher injury away from panic stations. There was a fundamental need for, primarily, cover and perhaps a little competition, too.

To bring in a player who, like Fletcher, is at his best forging a lone furrow up front and was the top goalscorer at a club who finished higher than us last season, was quite astute business.

Throwing them together in a 4-4-2 system seems a very strange move, though. If a tactical overhaul was the plan to accommodate two genuine strikers in an orthodox pairing, then it is reasonable to ask why England International Fraizer Campbell or the current first choice England Under-21 forward Connor Wickham could not have been utilized to provide it.

You could also argue that both would have added something that Graham cannot whilst paired with Fletcher. Campbell would be a willing runner of the channels, for example, and threaten the space behind a defence, whilst Wickham would offer a platform for more direct football.

I am not hailing either as some kind of magical saviour, but IF a front two was the plan then why weren't they used beforehand? IF a front two was the plan, then why strip the squad of all but two forwards for a spell whilst Wickham was away on loan?

Similarly, IF it was always planned for a central midfield two to operate without the protection of a player in an acutely pronounced deeper forward position in front of them, then why adjudge (correctly) the inherited crop of midfielders inadequate for the task, bring in an imposing athlete in Alfred N'Diaye to make it an option, and then drop him a couple of games after the switch to the new system?

You could go on and on, citing, for example, spending a fortune to replace the kind of tailor-made workhorse wingers upon which 4-4-2 relies in Seb Larsson and James McClean with free-spirited and largely indisciplined mavericks Stephane Sessegnon and Adam Johnson. The list goes on and on. This squad has not been designed for the system it is currently being shoe-horned into, and Danny Graham, much as I like him, is not worth accommodating at the expense of getting less out of frankly much better players.

Martin O'Neill is often criticised for being ‘stubborn', and I think that is unfair. Show me a manager who isn't stubborn and I'll show you one who isn't worth a bean. He is clearly still a man of conviction. The trouble is that the only convictions he seems to have retained his faith in are those that he probably shouldn't.

He still appears to be resolutely convinced, for example, that Seb Larsson is good enough in central midfield to be largely untouchable, and that a player that he himself has brought to the club could potentially be a more risky central defensive option than Titus Bramble.

It is only speculative, of course, but perhaps this was something that John Robertson brought to the table previously in his managerial career? May be he was the one who provided O'Neill with the reassurances he needed in tough moments to maintain the courage of his more vulnerable convictions? I don't know, though until results improve it is a question that will keep being asked, even if it is unfair.

O'Neill remains the man I want in charge of Sunderland in the long term. His track record alone demands patience and he deserves a chance to make the ends justify the current painful means.

But whilst everyone is questioning whether or not he has lost his ‘mojo', ‘magic', ‘spark', or even touch with the modern game, I think the only thing he has lost of late is his faith in himself and the ideals with which he started the season.

This team is no more capable of opening itself up and asserting itself on games as it was in August. He had it right the first time. It needs to be organized, tough to beat, and set up primarily to compensate for its flaws, no matter how ugly that might be.

I am sure that if O'Neill was asked again if he has been plagued with self-doubt in recent weeks, it would be met with the same cleverly worded irate dismissal as it was the first time. Just lately, though, actions have been speaking considerably louder, and they tell a very different story.

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