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Martin O'Neill: Were We Warned?

Martin O'Neill has brought with him to Sunderland a very specific style of play, and a similarly specific way of managing a football club in general. With some red and whites currently a little anxious, we thought it'd be a good idea to take a look back at a piece we did last year, when we interviewed some fans of previous clubs O'Neill has managed and asked them what we could expect from our new manager.

Kiyoshi Ota - Getty Images

Cast your minds back to ten months ago. It is early December, it is cold, and Martin O'Neill is the new manager at Sunderland AFC. Steve Bruce has departed in a cacophony of soundbites - "tenth", "injuries", "my roots" - and in his place has arrived the man many Wearsiders had wanted for years.

With the club's support in rapture, you may remember that we here at Roker Report decided to get in touch with fans of his previous clubs, asking them their thoughts on our new gaffer (the piece can be found HERE).

Now, almost a year on, and as some are beginning to question O'Neill's style of play, we thought it best to ponder the question: were we warned, from day one, of what to expect under the Ulsterman?

His Playing Style?

Despite the five match unbeaten run that has started this season (seven if we include the League Cup), plenty of Sunderland fans have been left worried by what they perceive as a negative playing style. The O'Neill mantra on Wearside is firmly one where defending takes priority, with more creative players expected to build upon this solid base. As the latter hasn't happened yet this season, plenty have wondered whether or not the manager is capable of changing things in such a way as to get the best out of his attacking players.

Looking back at that piece from a year ago, fans from clubs he had previously managed each highlight a feature of his style that has continued on to the present day: pragmatism.

From Wycombe Wanderers to Aston Villa, those we asked all agreed that O'Neill brings to his sides a high level of organisation, combining it with good, old hard work to try and gain the maximum end result.

However, there are some more negative aspects that were alluded to, ones that we have seen arise on Wearside over the past ten months. Philip Wright, a Norwich fan, suggested that O'Neill sides could garner a great result or two, then follow it up with "a complete no-show". There were certainly signs of this at the end of last season. As well, he suggests that while Norwich under O'Neill did not become a route one side, they did "rather overdo the long ball". Sunderland under O'Neill have tried to stay away from this, but it is worth noting that, when things are going wrong, this is sometimes resorted to.

Our man from Celtic perhaps gave us the most comparable story to our current situation. He suggested that O'Neill would supplement his side with a few expensive but high quality players (see Adam Johnson and Steven Fletcher). Although O'Neill at Celtic started with a 3-5-2 formation, we were told that it eventually morphed into a 4-4-2, one complete with "dominant (if limited) centre-backs, and a style that marries counter-attacking football with an emphasis on set-pieces". Now, Sunderland do not currently play a 4-4-2 formation, but it is not difficult to see the parallels in the two sides' styles of play.

His Best Quality?

Our respondents were unanimous on this one: his ability to motivate his players. Such an attribute is one that is never likely to change in a manager, and last year's superb run following his arrival underlined how important O'Neill's motivational skills are to his management style.

Our Celtic follower was, again, perhaps the man most on the money. He suggested that O'Neill was not a tinkerer, and instead a manager who drills his squad continually with his preferred systems, and does not seek to change those systems at the drop of a hat.

Certainly, we have seen that on Wearside - indeed, it is the primary factor in the current rumblings amongst some of the fanbase. O'Neill remains steadfast in his game plan even when pressure is mounting on his side; West Ham away last month is a perfect example.

His Biggest Failing?

Now, this was an interesting one. Wycombe, Leicester and Celtic were all fairly happy to say he had few failings - O'Neill having left on amicable terms. Norwich and Villa? Not so much.

Taking the Norwich critique first, we were warned of O'Neill's failings in the transfer market. In truth, it would be unfair to compare this just yet. His loan signings of Sotirios Krygiakos and Wayne Bridge last season left some uneasy, but they were little more than stop-gaps until the summer came. Now, having signed Johnson, Fletcher, Carlos Cuéllar and Louis Saha (and Danny Rose on loan), his new boys must be given time before we make a judgment. However, if Fletcher's form is anything to go on, this critique could be one O'Neill banishes to the past.

With regards to Aston Villa, there seems to be plenty of rancour with the state the club was left in upon O'Neill's departure. Arguments about whether or not this was his fault are not within the scope of this article (though it should probably be pointed out that O'Neill wasn't the man responsible for determining how much his players should be paid), but the criticism that the Irishman only seeks to buy what he knows has proven unfounded so far at Sunderland. Thankfully, Emile Heskey has yet to don the red and white stripes...

What does stand out from the Villa critique is that O'Neill's style of play is limited and that "his use of the squad is limited". We were warned that he would soon have his favourites and pick them week in, week out. Again, given the injury troubles we usually have, this is a difficult one to assess. However, given James McClean's recent form and the decision to throw Carlos Cuéllar straight back into the line-up on Saturday, it may well ring true. That said, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and few were bemoaning Cuéllar's inclusion before his poor performance at The Etihad.


Our final question to his former fans - how he is viewed now he has left their club - clearly has no relevance here. When he eventually leaves the Stadium of Light, perhaps then we can revisit their opinions and draw our own comparisons.

However, for now, it seems the answer to our question of whether we were warned is fairly mixed - though it does lean towards a 'yes'. The forewarnings of O'Neill's non-tinkering, organised and pragmatic approach to play have all rang fairly true. That is not to say these are negatives, indeed Sunderland's defence is arguably more solid than it has been in years, but it does make one wonder what will happen if his game plan begins to fail.

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