If you asked your average football fan to draw a list of the most well recognised managers of all time, you'd get the same names that kept cropping up. Ferguson. Shankly. Busby. Brian Clough.
Cloughie is a Sunderland legend and a man which our current gaffer has spent his career trying to emulate both in style and success. For this reason, Martin O'Neill has earned the accolade of being a real 'old-school' manager, and while in some respects this is fantastic given how much his ex-employees tend to look up to him, when results are not going his way you have to wonder if what he learned in the 70's and 80's still applies in modern football.
We've spent the majority of this season playing quite similar formations; 4-4-1-1 and 4-4-2, recently tending to use the latter. 4-4-2 is a very British formation. Four defenders, two centre-mids (one with a bit of flair, the other who knows how to tackle), two fast wingers and two goalscorers. It's very rigid and predictable, but when used correctly; also very effective. If Cattermole was fit he'd be picked ahead of N'Diaye, and with the exception of a centre midfielder with a bit of flair, and of course genuine full backs, we'd be quite comfortable playing 4-4-2.
The problem is it's not working. It hasn't worked all season. It's not just that we're not scoring, it's that we don't even look like scoring. If it wasn't for Gardner smashing penalties in and Fletcher's fine form in the early stages of the campaign we'd have next to no goals, and the introduction of Danny Graham hasn't helped matters at all. This leads me to my next point; O'Neill's transfer policy.
MON came to the club with a stigma; he buys local, and he pays big. His transfers since he joined the club have only supported this, and if you look at the current team selection, with the exception of maybe Sessegnon and N'Diaye, the rest of the team are either from the UK and Ireland, or have played their football here for a prolonged period.
If you were around then, take your mind back to Cloughie's 1980 European Cup final side which featured Martin O'Neill at its centre. A 4-4-1-1 formation with an entire team of domestic players. I'm not claiming to be Sherlock Holmes, as that formation or a variation thereof was pretty bog standard at the time, and domestic players were generally dominant, but its no secret that O'Neill took something from his time at Forest, and has based his team management around that.
30 years later and we're all banging on about 'tiki-taka', which is basically pass and move, only better. Imagine our current side trying to pass the other team off the pitch, it would be comical, but O'Neill's stubbornness to adapt both his playing style and player selection might have cost us gravely this season, and this is the reason why many are pointing the finger at him.
It's an extremely unattractive brand of football based upon firing the ball up to Steven Fletcher who has the choice of either nodding it to Danny Graham who will proceed to mis-control it, or trying to turn it into the path of a winger who will either fail to beat their man or send the resulting cross into the stands. Larsson in centre midfield doesn't help this either, because he's hardly capable of playing defence splitting passes. Nothing against Larsson, I like him, but who else would have thought of sticking one of the best crossers of the ball in the league, in an area of the pitch where he can't cross the ball. The playing style doesn't give us any advantages and our players aren't individually gifted enough to win games on their own. It's a mess.
Surely O'Neill's ideologies benefit the English game though? Buying English players encourages domestic development by rewarding players who came through club academies, as opposed to buying a foreign player for a cheaper amount, even though they may be more talented. The Premier League would also appear to praise O'Neill for this, given their recent implementation of 'Home-Grown' status players, you would assume that what O'Neill is doing is exactly what those sanctions intended.
Our current situation may highlight the flaws in these sanctions. The rich clubs can pay well over the odds for relatively talented home-grown players, who they need in their squad to fill a quota, where less financially gifted clubs like Sunderland are left with the scraps. Ask a mate why we payed £10m for Adam Johnson? I bet he says “because he's british” before “because he's good”. And yes, Johnson is a good player, but a Scandanavian player of Johnson's quality would go for around £4m.
Alfred N'Diaye would be the exception to the rule on O'Neill's part, but even N'Diaye very much fits a 4-4-2. He's basically another Cattermole by the looks of things, apart from his occasional ventures up front which Catts has conditioned himself to resist. I'm not a fan of warranting O'Neill the excuse of inheriting a shit Steve Bruce team either, because he's had 3 transfer windows to sort it out now, and he hasn't even scratched the surface. It's not like Ellis Short is a tight bastard either, because it seems since he came to the club he hasn't stopped throwing cash around, be it on players or investment into club facilities.
I'm not anti-O'Neill at all. I'm the opposite in fact. I like the bloke, I like how he conducts himself in interviews and I love his passion for the game, epitomised in his trademark jump after a goal. But our performances and results this season have been utterly dreadful and therefore O'Neill cannot be defended. If it was Curbishley or Allardyce, or even Bruce who was in charge now, I'd be staked outside his house with a sinister look on my face armed with a bottle of Lucozade and a Pepperami, but O'Neill is a personal favourite of mine and therefore I'm too proud to join in with the boo-boys.
The way things are, Sunderland are headed for the iceberg and O'Neill is too proud to let go of the helm. He wants to do it his way, and he's willing to risk getting us relegated in order to prove his point. I haven't done coaching badges, I don't know if his tactics are outdated or teams have us sussed out, but I hope for our sake that he does know what he's doing because the implications of relegation could be catastrophic not only for club finances, but for our support as well.
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