Craig Clark: The Ill-Fated Flirtation With 4-4-2
It was almost like Martin O’Neill wanted to be sacked. As Sunderland slept walked their way into a relegation battle, the Northern Irishman’s attempted final answer to the problem was to pair Danny Graham and Steven Fletcher up front. It was a partnership that never looked like working and brought the worst out of both players as well as meaning Stephane Sessegnon was shifted to the right hand side of a midfield four
At one stage in the defeat to QPR at Loftus Road the system was working so badly that O’Neill decided to shift the lumbering, paceless Danny Graham onto the right as Sessegnon was offering no protection to his full back. Take a moment to consider that. That leaden footed man pretending to be a striker instead pretending to be a fleet footed winger. If it wasn’t us, I’d be crying with laughter.
4-4-2 was introduced at the Hawthorns, where the Lads were defeated 2-1 before an injury to Fletcher saw it ditched for O’Neill’s final game in charge against Manchester Utd. It might seem harsh to blame the switch in system at all for our woeful season – it was only used 4 times with Fletcher and Graham as the strike force – but those games were crucial.
The run of matches against West Brom, QPR, Norwich City and Fulham were all "winnable". The introduction of 4-4-2 made us less potent than ever – I’m still shocked that this was possible – and we picked up a measly 2 points from our home games and none on the road.
Failing to beat Norwich at home when they were down to 10 men left me feeling like relegation had become an inevitability. Better options were available – what happened to the 4-3-3 that worked so well at Wigan, for example?
It was clear that the move toward using two strikers not suited to playing together was a final, desperate and frankly clueless roll of the dice by a man on borrowed time.
Simon Walsh: Inconsistent Selection
I fully understand that injuries happen, as do suspensions and so forth. However the inability to keep key partnerships steady, such as in central defence where John O'Shea has had plenty of partners, and in the middle of midfield where I've lost track of the amount of partnerships we've had is terrible.
Consistency is a key to building a team. Ok, so he's not in a partnership but look at Simon Mignolet. Far and away our best performer this season and he's been an ever-present. He's also forged an identity for himself within the wider game.
He alone can't do it though and as a result with so much chopping and changing Sunderland are a club still in search of an identity, and lacking in leaders and people to take responsibility for their actions.
David Boyle: Stadium Of Plight
Sunderland fans have witnessed a miserable five wins on home turf this term, a statistic which will come as no real surprise to anyone that has come through the gates at the Stadium of Light this year or even a neutral just casting an eye on the league table, which as we all know doesn’t lie, especially at the business end of the season. However it has been Sunderland’s inability to make home advantage against sides in the bottom half of the table which has cost them dearly.
Barring wins over Reading and Wigan the Black Cats have failed to beat any of the sides who, with the greatest of respect, you would be hoping to pick three points up from at home.
Recent fixtures against Stoke and Southampton withstanding due to the circumstances, Sunderland did themselves no favours with the failure to beat ten-man Norwich and the horrible run of results in November which saw the side pick up just a single point from a run of home games including; Aston Villa, West Brom and QPR.
Whilst it is fantastic to beat West Ham convincingly, repeat a famous victory over defending champions Manchester City and finally end a hoodoo with Everton on home turf, the simple fact is that you have to pick up more points against sides in the bottom half, even just a couple or, well, you find yourselves desperately trying to claw yourselves away from the trapdoor, and we all know not to go near the trapdoor, as there is something down there.
Karl Jones: Surrendering The Ascendancy Too Often
Statistically, it doesn’t read too badly – Sunderland have won 9 of 17 games in which they scored first. But, we have failed to win a game all season after equalising, most of which since the turn of the year ending in limp defeats to the likes of Reading, West Bromwich Albion, Queens Park Rangers and Aston Villa. Yesterday, Paolo Di Canio lamented the ‘shy guys’ that regularly appear in our midfield and, in the aforementioned games in particular, it is those who consistently fail to capitalise on momentum swinging in our favour.
The home game against Fulham and the recent hard-fought point against Stoke City portray fleeting evidence of this Sunderland team having some capacity to wrestle back the initiative, but too many times this season it – along with vital league points – has escaped us.
Stephen Goldsmith: Over-Trusting
The first count of Martin O’Neill’s over-trusting was his excessive confidence that his tried and tested way of playing football was going to be enough to keep us up, an objective below the projected expectations for the season, I'm sure. With the personnel we have here, it wasn't.
The second count was his over-trusting of his squad. They fooled him. He failed to address a pathetic central midfield situation early enough, and then trusted that we were in a position to allow more to go out than come in when the January window arrived. He scraped us through to the winter window without the central midfield additions, but was about to end up falling short in doing so with the general squad size come the season’s end.
Martin O'Nell's cardinal sin at Sunderland - too much trust.
Luke Bowley: Lack of Creativity
One of the biggest problems Sunderland have had this season is that they've struggled which it comes to chance creation. This is problematic, largely because you need chances to score goals, and you need goals to win football matches.
The main reason for this is that our three main creative threats have vastly underperformed this season. Though Stephane Sessegnon began to get his form back towards the end of the season, he's looked a shadow of his former self for the most part. James McClean has suffered a similar fate. Bursting onto the scenes under Martin O'Neill last season, he was the catalyst for Sunderland's upturn in form, but has been simply dreadful this term. Only 18 of his 126 crosses this season have reached their target, a truly shocking ratio. Adam Johnson has fared slightly better, and with 5 goals and 6 assists, he can justifiably claim that his season hasn't been as poor as some have made out. However it is fair to say that Johnson hasn't quite performed at the level expected of him.
Martin O'Neill effectively put his faith in this three players to provide the creativity, which explains why there's a remarkable lack of it in the centre of midfield, especially when Seb Larsson has largely been left to do the legwork in the middle rather than create chances. With McClean, Sessegnon and Johnson all under-performing, there's no-one else in the team who can step up to the plate. A creative centre midfielder might well be needed in the summer to ease the burden on these players.
Chris Weatherspoon: January Trimmings
This season was hardly a raucous thrill-ride before the turn of the year, but the nature of our January dealings up front has proven to be an almost fatal blow. Considering Martin O'Neill iterated that no one would leave the club before a replacement came in - a one in, one out policy, effectively - it is staggering that he allowed Sunderland's striking options to be so willfully shorn down.
With Danny Graham eventually coming in, O'Neill somehow thought it logical to let Fraizer Campbell, Louis Saha, Ji Dong-Won and Connor Wickham all leave the club's forward ranks. Wickham would of course return, but O'Neill left his side with just two out and out strikers. Quelle surprise, then, when Steven Fletcher was ruled out for the season, heaping even more pressure on Graham. For all I liked O'Neill, this mistake was unforgivable and has nearly cost us - and might still - our Premier League status.