From The Durham Times: Di Canio Gets The Sessegnon Show Back On The Road

Michael Regan

Every week we lend our views to the Durham Times, and in anticipation of Monday's trip to Villa here's what we penned. Please, go out and buy The Durham Times for 50p each week for even more great build up!

There has been much for Sunderland fans to love about recent weeks on Wearside. Where, a month ago, they found themselves following their team with a heavy heart, willing the season to come to a swift end, now the flame of hope is once again lit in the red and white half of the north-east.

Of course, the main protagonist in this has been an Italian who, four weeks ago, had no affiliation with this part of the land whatsoever. Paolo Di Canio's appointment was met with differing reactions: anger, bemusement, confusion.

Ellis Short's decision to turf out Martin O'Neill for the enigmatic foreigner is now almost vindicated. Even if the Di Canio reign turns sour - and the nature of football, especially at Sunderland, suggests it shall - Short will still have succeeded in avoiding a relegation that, under the previous manager, the Black Cats were straying all too close to.

Along with his coaching team, Di Canio has injected a determinism that had been sorely lacking in recent months. His players now fight for every second ball, run until they're fit to drop, and attack with all the vigour of lions recently freed from captivity. In essence, it is reminiscent of the early days of the O'Neill era.

However, his impact upon one player in particular has been arguably the most important transformation of them all.

There has been a general unwritten rule about Sunderland for the past two years or so: when Stephane Sessegnon plays well, so, usually, do Sunderland.

One thing the Black Cats can be thankful to O'Neill for is that, for all fans bemoaned his negativity, he did build a relatively solid back line. Indeed, Sunderland's goal difference is worth an extra point in this season's relegation battle.

What he could not do, however, was get the best out of Sessegnon. Mercurial at times, infuriating at others, Sessegnon is the most technically gifted footballer to pull on a red and white shirt in their recent history. He can be utterly ruinous to the chances of the opposing team; and, if he does not fancy it on a certain day, equally ruinous to the fortunes of his own side.

Under O'Neill, the latter had become an all too frequent occurrence. Sessegnon drifted through games, receiving the ball too deep to do anything, or getting possession high upfield with no one anywhere near him.

Di Canio, realising the link between Sessegnon's level of performance and Sunderland's chances of success, has immediately sought to reaffirm the Beninese international's role as the side's focal point. It is no coincidence that, in the three games since O'Neill departed, the diminutive frontman has been the best player in a red and white shirt each time.

First and foremost, Sessegnon has been moved back to a central role in behind the striker. Previously, he had been pushed out wide, both to the left and to the right, as the club tried in vain to find his most effective position.

Just moving him back into the thick of the action was never going to be enough to solve the Sessegnon problem, though. Thankfully, Di Canio and his coaching staff were wise to this. Much of the problem with Sunderland's playmaker was not that he wasn't seeing enough of the ball - it was that he had no one in support with him when he did get it. Sessegnon could, at times, beat three opposing players, look up, and find only Steven Fletcher in the opposing box, crowded out by defenders.

The third goal in the Tyne-Wear derby acted as a perfect example of the shift in mentality Di Canio has engineered. Sessegnon skipped past Cheik Tiote with effortless ease, marauding forward with Danny Graham ahead of him. An attempt to go past Steven Taylor was foiled, but coming up the left wing offering an option was David Vaughan, who Sessegnon promptly laid the ball off to. What followed next was, of course, Vaughan's stunning goal, which ended the game well and truly.

The salient point here is that, by encouraging Sunderland's midfielders to get themselves forward, Di Canio has transformed his star player back into the talent he once was. Sessegnon is now much less likely to find himself crowded out, as the support of teammates drags opposing players away from him. By occupying higher positions upfield, they are taking both pressure and bodies away from Sessegnon. Indeed, his winning goal against Everton came as a result of him having space to run into.

How the former PSG man performs is crucial to the Wearsiders' hopes. Even allowing for the improvements shown by the likes of Adam Johnson and Seb Larsson, it remains that he is far and away Sunderland's most important attacking player.

Thankfully, the new management team recognised this immediately. There has been a lot to praise Paolo Di Canio for in his three short weeks at the Sunderland helm, but his ability to get the best out of Stephane Sessegnon - when his team most direly needed him - ranks at the very top.

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