Martin O'Neill was rightly maligned for his negative tactics while manager of Sunderland, often playing a defence deeper than a Barry White bass solo, albeit with an attempt at counter-attacking football which failed as a result of having midfielders that were seemingly incapable of passing a ball further than three yards forward. Sunderland were as turgid as they'd ever been during their current spell in the Premier League and it was, at times, eye-gougeingly horrible to watch. It was therefore some relief when Paolo Di Canio promised to bring an attacking, energetic style of play to the Stadium of Light.
Of course, now it appears we might be having the exact opposite problem as under O'Neill: a 'gung-ho' attack, with full backs marauding down the wings, and leaving masses of space in behind. We saw this last season, during the 6-1 demolition at Villa Park, and, more recently, last week's defeat against Crystal Palace, a result that set the panic alarms ringing in the minds of all supporters.
In many ways this is still an improvement on what came before. At least now we're the self-destructive, hilarious kind of shit, rather than the boring, unwatchable shit. However, I'm sure that all those involved with the club don't want to see us relegated, even though everyone knows The Championship is better, and so we're going to have to actually try and stop letting the opposition score goals.
Sunderland's biggest problem is a vulnerability to pace. Dwight Gayle exploited this to the fullest extent the weekend before last, taking advantage of a midfield lacking any physical presence, full backs struggling to get back, and poor defensive positioning from the centre halves, to get in behind and create a number of chances. In the second half Modibo Diakite almost got caught out by Gayle's pace when shepherding an innocent looking ball back to the keeper before, shortly afterwards, John O'Shea performed his mind fart, and sent Palace's record signing tumbling in the box after losing possession. What was perhaps most worrying is that O'Shea and Diakite seemed unaware that they were going into a game against a team that attack with pace, which means question marks have to be raised over Di Canio's match preperations.
And then there's the set-pieces. Three of the five goals Sunderland have conceded this season have come from dead-ball situations (Penalties don't count. At least not in this writers eyes). The first goal at Selhurst Park was comfortably the worst of these, where the ball somehow went straight in the middle of the six yard box unimpeded, before bouncing in off Danny Gabbidon. Kieran Westwood's command of his area looked worryingly poor, and it should have been dealt with
It's especially odd given one of the most impressive aspect of Di Canio's opening games as manager was his organisational skills. In his very first game against Chelsea, Sunderland held their shape very well, and were unfortunate to be on the end of a narrow loss. The wins against Newcastle and Everton saw similarly excellent defensive work. However, the team that went out against Palace lacked that organisation. In fact they were all over the place.
It, of course, must be pointed out here that Di Canio is working with new players in the defence as well as the fact that he lost an excellent goalkeeper in Simon Mignolet over the summer. Trying to get so many players, all adapting to his style of football, to act as a cohesive unit will take some time. The international break has come at a very good period for the club. Last season, after his Norwich side had started without a win, conceding five against both Fulham and Liverpool, Chris Hughton was said to have used the international break to work tirelessly at getting his remaining defenders organised. Norwich came back after the break and went on a ten game unbeaten run in the league.
Of course, Di Canio plays a very different style of football to the more cautious Hughton, but he's still had time this break to focus on his defence. With John O'Shea suspended for the visit of Arsenal, the back four that is likely to start; Jack Colback, Modibo Diakite, Valentin Roberge and Ondrej Celustka, have all been with the club during the two week break. Di Canio has hopefully used this time, and his own organisational skills, to drill the defence into a unit journalists will describe as Hadrian's Wall because it's quite near Sunderland. This would be especially beneficial for Roberge and Diakite, a partnership that could prove to be an effective one, but who have clearly needed time to adapt to English football.
Some physicality and presence in the middle would also help. Vaughan and Larsson offered no protection to a back four struggling with Palace's pace. Di Canio's decision to drop Cabral looks increasingly baffling, given the former Basle man's excellent pre-season performances and solid opening day showing against Fulham. Bringing Lee Cattermole into the fold is another option, as is (although very unlikely) a switch to a midfield three.
While it's genuinely refreshing to see Sunderland play with attacking intent (a full back actually got to the by-line and set up a goal with a cross), we must tighten things up at the back if we are to stay in the top division another season. It's become a cliché to say good teams are built on strong defences, and while I can't say whether or not that's true, I'm fairly confident they aren't build on the kind of defence that concedes the goals Di Canio's side have been. The Italian must find a way to organise his back four, or else it's going to be another long season on Wearside.