Martin O'Neill returned to Villa Park on Saturday for the first time since his departure back in August 2010, as his Sunderland side played out their third 0-0 in four games. The weekend brought up the unenviable record of it being six hours since the Black Cats found the net, though they could count themselves unlucky, having missed a number of chances and seen Nicklas Bendtner's goal harshly chalked off for offside.
O'Neill opted again for a 4-4-1-1 formation, though injuries prompted a reshuffle in personnel. Simon Mignolet, now comfortably established as the club's number one goalkeeper, continued in goal, but there were changes in front of him. Phil Bardsley reverted to left-back to enable the returning John O'Shea to line up on the right of defence - though there was continuity in the selections of Michael Turner and Matt Kilgallon at centre-back. James McClean and Seb Larsson started on the left and right of midfield respectively, while Lee Cattermole's absence saw Jack Colback line up alongside Craig Gardner in the middle. Stephane Sessegnon again filled the role behind lone striker Bendtner.
As for the home side, Alex McLeish opted for a 4-4-2. Shay Given lined up in goal, protected by a back four of (from left to right): Eric Lichaj, Nathan Baker, James Collins and Carlos Cuellar. In midfield, Marc Albrighton acted as an advanced left winger, with Charles N'Zogbia mirroring him on the right; Chris Herd and Stephen Ireland provided balance by occupying deep central midfield roles. Up front, Gabriel Agbonlahor partnered Andres Wiemann.
Going Wide for the Win
As has been noted numerous times in this column previously, Sunderland under Martin O'Neill rely overwhelmingly on width. Again, there was no change here on Saturday.
James McClean, who has been the victim of specific tactics to eliminate him from games in the past month or so, was one of the star performers in the Midlands. McLeish's decision to line up N'Zogbia on the right-wing seemed a strange one: it left full-back Cuellar exposed to a one-on-one tussle with the Irishman (and later, Alan Hutton, when James Collins' injury prompted a defensive reshuffle).
Though McClean was unable to provide a goal or an assist, he was consistently the danger man for the Black Cats. An 81% normal pass rate was combined with an attempted cross count of 14, of which 4 were successful. If this sounds like a low completion rate, bear in mind that opposing left-winger Albrighton managed just one accurate cross from his 13 attempts.
As shown on the above graph, he was consistently Sunderland's most advanced player - and thus their focal attacking outlet. With Stephane Sessegnon misfiring, the side's hopes of creating something were left to McClean and, to a lesser extent, Seb Larsson. Though the game ultimately ended goalless, it was a tale of misfortune for the visitors. McClean blazed over from a Sessegnon cross, while Bendtner saw one cleared off the line then another contentiously ruled out for offside.
In contrast, the home side looked extremely narrow. With inverted wingers playing, this was to be expected, but - aside from the very early stages - it was never a gameplan that looked likely to bear fruit. Villa were overly reliant on N'Zogbia on the right side of midfield, focusing 43% of their attacks through there. However, with Bardsley playing as an 'inverted full-back', this simply negated the Frenchman's ability to jink inside on his stronger left-foot.
Though they were misfiring when attacking, Sunderland looked solid at the back. An early mistake - 30 seconds in, no less - called Simon Mignolet into action to save the side's blushes, but the Belgian was rarely troubled after that.
The centre-back pairing of Kilgallon and Turner were forced to contribute just a single successful tackle between them; the midfield and wide defenders proved adept at nullifying any attacks before they reached the heart of the Sunderland defence. Of the home side's 13 shots on goal, 62% came from outside the area, and none from within the 6-yard-box. That Setanta Ireland presented striker Wiemann with the man of the match award seems strange: the Austrian managed a solitary shot on target, and turned the ball over in error five times - more than anyone else on the pitch.
Another fairly drab affair, but at least there were signs of improvement in the second half from Sunderland. They seized momentum after the break and looked likely to score, but wastefulness and misfortune ensured a stalemate once more.
At the back, O'Neill's men look solid enough - though performances at West Brom and Everton reflect what can happen when the side tires. However, it is further forward where Sunderland can expect to see wholesale changes following the season's end Nicklas Bendtner played well again on Saturday, but it remains that he is not a striker who will score his side a hatful of goals. With the Black Cats lacking in firepower when Stephane Sessegnon has an off day, don't be surprised to see at least two strikers head through the doors at SR5 this coming summer.