Well, this season is rather fizzling out somewhat, isn't it. Last week's total inability to seriously threaten a defence that has Wolves well and truly anchored to the bottom of the league didn't do a huge amount to shake us out of that 'end-of-season' mood.
There was at least some semblance of satisfaction to be found in the fact that it was so meaningless. For me, since snuffing out the dying embers of the Steve Bruce reign at Molineux back in early December, Wolves have provided a harrowing vision of what might have been for Sunderland this season, so I won't be complaining too much.
Nevertheless, a home draw with the bottom club at any point of the season must be considered a disappointment, and I think it was more the lackluster manner of it which rankled than the result itself. The failure to put the opposition under any real pressure, or really stretch a notoriously leaky defence, or be able to distinguish themselves on home turf in any discernible manner from a team destined for the drop.
However, as I watched, it wasn't the lack of a clinical striker that I found myself lamenting. Nor the lack of a flying and incisive right winger to take advantage of the space down that side of the pitch as Wolves shuffled across in an attempt to crowd out James McClean. It was, instead, the absence of John O'Shea at the back.
"That's it – he's finally cracked", I imagine is the prevalent response amongst you right now, as the crazy internet man questions whether the absence of a big, and often lumbering, centre half has anything to do at all with attacking inadequacies of a team. You'd probably have a reasonable case. On the surface it seems a ludicrous suggestion.
But what if I told you that Sunderland had failed to win a single game in which John O'Shea has not featured this season? Or that in those 11 games that he has missed Sunderland have failed to find the net in all but 3 of them? How about if I added that in the 20 games in which O'Shea has featured since Martin O'Neill's arrival, only 3 have resulted in Sunderland drawing a blank in front of goal?
|With O'Shea||Without O'Shea|
|Wins||13 (43%)||0 (0%)|
|Draws||9 (30%)||5 (45%)|
|Losses||8 (27%)||6 (55%)|
Now obviously, no one here is suggesting that John O'Shea is some kind of secret attacking superstar who is able to effortlessly cut a Messi-esq swath through the Premier League. Clearly he isn't that kind of a player. As we have always said, statistics are merely an aide to debate, not an end to it (and it must be acknowledged that the victory over QPR when he was withdrawn with injury at 0-0 does muddy the statistic argument a little). The remarkable contrast between attacking fortunes is surely too pronounced to dismiss as mere coincidence, though.
Ever since arriving in the summer, fans have been debating O'Shea's ability. Many have questioned his distribution and his pace, and I think you'd be hard-pressed to make a serious case for his aerial prowess being any better than players such as Michael Turner and Matthew Kilgallon. In fact, isolate any purely technical aspect of O'Shea's game and nothing at all stands out as special in any way.
What sets him apart, though, and allowed him to enjoy such a long career at one of the biggest and most successful clubs in the world, is how he is able to view the game as an entire contest rather than restricting himself to his own game. O'Shea can read a game in terms of ebb and flow and from the heart of the defence subtly ensure his team plays in the right areas according to the situation. It is the hallmark of genuine footballing class.
Last week, Wolves had some limited attacking ambitions, but they were hardly very adventurous in the grand scheme of things. In fact, I suspect that, given their situation, it took Sunderland by surprise that Wolves were not actually more ambitious. Managers and coaches can only do so much in preparing their teams for any given opposition, and they often do so on limited information. Ultimately, players must also take a degree of responsibility once on the pitch and a little initiative is required to react to such unexpected situations.
Not all players are capable of that, of course, and whether or not there is an argument to be had about if it is acceptable for a club who have invested so heavily as ours to have such a dirth of such players is perhaps best left for another day.
But O'Shea is someone who can do that - a general on the pitch, forever marshalling his defence and, with it, setting the tone for the rest of the side. The opportunity was there for the defence to really squeeze up, condense the game into the Wolves half of the field, and create the kind of pressure that has seen them buckle on a weekly basis. Yet not once did the Sunderland defence look to do that and the opportunity passed them by with barely an acknowledgement it was ever even there, and not for the first time either.
That is what O'Shea brings to the table and that is why he is being missed so badly. He provides the brains behind the brawn of James McClean, and the canvas for the artistry of Stephane Sessegnon. Sunderland are simply a considerably better team with O'Shea in it – and not just at his own end of the pitch.