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The Big Questions O'Neill Will Need To Answer This Summer

Martin O'Neill and Sunderland have a few things to think about this summer.
Martin O'Neill and Sunderland have a few things to think about this summer.

With the players reporting back to the Academy of Light this week to begin preparation for the 2012/13 season and presumably a whole load of cardio work that would leave out of shape blokes like myself throwing up in the corner flag whilst praying for a quick death, we here at Roker Report began to ask the big questions ahead of the new term. The tough topics that O'Neill will face during his summer of preparation. Such as what shampoo does Marcos use? Where did Cattermole get those blonde highlights done and, most importantly, why in god's name did he think that was a good idea!?

Nah, only kidding, we did ask those questions but deemed them too ridiculous even for this website and put forward some real questions that actually make sense and have some sort of meaning to them.

Options Upfront, Or Lack Thereof

It should come as no surprise to any Sunderland fan with even just a handful of brain cells that our side is worryingly short on options upfront. Following the departure of Nicklas Bendtner, who's loan spell with the club left many, although not myself, far from impressed and Asamoah Gyan's stint as a Black Cat finally being brought to an end, Martin O'Neill's squad looks somewhat toothless in the final third. Sure, we have the likes of Fraizer Campbell, Connor Wickham and Ji waiting in the wings but can we really be confident going into a new season with that trio as our forward options?

I like Campbell, I really do, I like his attitude and positive demeanour in front of goal but as well as the obvious question marks that still remain regarding his fitness, rumours appear to be emerging that he may be on his way to pastures new. Pure speculation of course. As for Wickham, the promising young forward suffered a tumultuous
first season in the North East which was hampered by niggling injuries. Obviously we all hope that Connor hits the ground running during the summer months and under the guidance of O'Neill can be fully prepared for the new season, but as it stands the jury is still, unfortunately, out on Connor. The young Korean Ji won all our hearts with his last-gasp, offside winner over eventual champions Manchester City last year at the Stadium and has shown a couple of glimpses of promise, however he is still very much a rough, rough diamond and is in need of a good kicking from a few lower league defenders to toughen him up in my opinion.

Steven Fletcher has found himself as the out-and-out favourite to find himself as Martin's new recruit for his forward line, however it would appear that Sunderland and Wolves are some way off coming to an agreement over a fee, if in fact any contact has yet been made. The newly relegated side are understandably holding out for a big fee for
one of their few prized assets, yet Sunderland would be foolish to go steaming in, cash in hand, ready to meet their ludicrous current price tag. I expect this link to become somewhat of a "saga" this summer.

Then of course there are also the links to Louis Saha who would undoubtedly bring experience along with him, but is he really capable of putting in enough full games to make the impact O'Neill will surely be looking for in a striker and if, as I suspect, he is brought in as an option from the bench is he really any better than say Fraizer?

Left Back Left Wanting

Left back is again another position which we seem to have been discussing for years - mainly because we have. George McCartney has eventually done something of use during his second spell with the club by finally removing himself as a burden on the wage bill and moving to, curiously enough, West Ham again. Obviously McCartney was never in the frame for either Steve Bruce or Martin O'Neill and the left back slot has been covered predominantly of late by either: Keiran Richardson, Phil Bardsley, Jack Colback or Wayne Bridge. Whilst Richardson came the closest to taking the spot fulltime, as was Bruce's plan going into last season, it could be argued that while doing an admirable job he was still a square peg in a round hole. The same could be said for Bardo and Colback is far more useful in the centre of the park - quite honestly he is wasted at left back. Bridge did little wrong during his loan spell but he also did little to justify his astronomical wages, we didn't even get a glimpse of his popstar girlfriend tucking into a halftime pie, so we are yet again left without a true, natural left back.

This would again seem to hint at further recruitment being required, but suitable candidates that would match O'Neill's perceived transfer policy of preferring to shop within the British Isles aren't exactly in abundance, Stephen Warnock maybe? Doesn't exactly set the pulses racing does it? This may be an area where Martin's hand is turned and he has no choice but to cast his net further a field for a bone fida left back option.

Despite being more comfortable as a central defender, new recruit Carlos Cuellar is known to have been employed in either fullback spot. Could King Carlos be the answer to the problem, or simply another stop-gap?

Or could O'Neill turn his eye to one of the emerging talents from the academy to fill the void? Blair Adams would be the obvious candidate having come through the ranks as he impressed as an attacking full back in Kevin Ball's youth side. Adams has a gained experience with loan spells at first Brentford and then Northampton and was even on the bench for Sunderland's famous victory at Stamford Bridge. Whether or not Blair is ready to be thrown in at the deep end as O'Neill's first choice left back is open for debate and whilst I'm all for giving young, local lads a chance I would be more comfortable seeing Adams make a few more substitute appearances, or starts in the cup before such a decision is made.

The Midfield Conundrum

Thanks to Bruce's regime, O'Neill has been left with somewhat of a stockpile of central midfielders and obviously only a limited number of starting spots for the said group of players. SAFC currently have no fewer than five options available; Lee Cattermole, Jack Colback, Craig Gardner, David Meyler and David Vaughan - obviously something
has to give. The most obvious candidate would be Craig Gardner who was widely reported as struggling to settle in the North East for the majority of last season and despite a couple of long-range screamers has often flattered to deceive when called upon.

The Sunderland midfield is also currently lacking in pace and attacking intent, someone other than Sessegnon who can provide that cutting edge and help break down the opposition defence. Moves for Victor Moses, Aiden McGeady, Junior Hoilett and even Adam Johnson have all been rumoured, but as things stands it remains simply speculation,
or for the more pessimistic among us, pie in the sky.

Obviously McClean was a revelation last season when he was finally unleashed into first team action when O'Neill cut him free from Bruce's shackles, but Premier League defences quickly wised up to the young Irishman and James would often find himself marked out of the game by the smarter defences. On the opposite flank, Seb Larsson enjoyed a decent first season on Wearside, managing to find the net eight times and finally giving Sunderland a threat from setpieces.

However, James and Seb aside, Sunderland look short of options should either face an absence through injury or suspension. The hapless Elmohamady looks set to be on his way, with West Ham strongly linked with his "services" and presuming we get more than the £2.58 and a kitkat signed by Phil Bardsley that I would value him at, this would be still be a good bit of business in my opinion despite leaving us short.

Where Does Sess Best Fit?

Yes, there is mounting speculation and debate with regards to our talented little forward's future as the "big boys" have apparently become aware of the jewel in our crown and not long ago bookies even suspended betting on Sess leaving SAFC, but for the sake of this piece lets remain positive and expect the Benin wizard to be part of
O'Neill's plans for the opening day trip to the Emirates.

Here at Roker Report we love Sess, we bloody do, so much so we crowned him our first ever player of the season and he has been known to even bring a smile to Michael Graham's face on occasion with his fancy footwork on the pitch, but where is his best position? Last term Sess pretty much covered every blade of grass in the attacking third and looked just as adept cutting in from the left, driving from deep through the middle, playing just behind a lone forward or as part of a front two, but what will O'Neill have in mind long-term for the pocket-sized playmaker?

Perhaps the inconsistency that followed Sessegnon around, even more so than his best mate/lost puppy Elmohamady, could be attributed to the fact that he was rarely given a settled role and position in the side? Personally I was always happier to see Sessegnon in the middle of the park, playing in the so called "pocket", as I feel this gives him a little more space and time to dictate and orchestrate an attack, the counter-attacking masterpiece he almost single-handedly forged against Norwich being a perfect example. This spot on the pitch also gives Sessegnon the ability to assist the midfield as he is available to help harass the opposition defence in a bid to win back possession.

But how about O'Neill? If last season is anything to go by it would seem that Martin also prefers to see Sess play just behind a lone forward but was this simply out of necessity, basically because we didn't have enough options to play any other way?

Formation, Formation, Formation

Last season following his arrival, O'Neill more often than not would employ a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1, depending on Sessegnon's position on the pitch. As previously stated however, was this formation simply employed by O'Neill as a stop gap until this summer where he would have more appropriate time to drill into his squad a new formation and system?

So what are the alternatives?

Roker Report head honcho Simon Walsh looked at O'Neill's spell with Celtic last week and in particular the 3-5-2 formation which served him well at the time, click here to read, and saw his side reach the 2003 UEFA Cup Final. This would appear to be the most likely alternative that the gaffer may toy with over the summer. It would certainly be an interesting experiment were O'Neill to give it a go and the recent arrival of Carlos Cuellar could, in theory, allow us to play three "strong" central defenders at the back, alongside O'Shea and Brown. So who knows, maybe we will see the 3-5-2 make an appearance during pre-season.

The South Stand Experiment

Not really a question for Martin, but still a decision the club will be nervously waiting to see if they got right. Credit has to be given to the club for continuing to strive to improve the match day atmosphere at the Stadium of Light. Their continued work with supporter lead initiatives such as "Ha'way the flags" can only be seen as a positive step in the right environment. Of course the boldest change that has been made as part of this project is without a
doubt the removal of the away fans section from the "lower bowl" of the ground and the addition of a "singing section" in its place.

Quite why the away fans were given such a prominent place in the ground in the first place was always a decision which baffled me and they have quite rightly been moved to the concourse where it will be, presumably, harder to generate a positive atmosphere to back their side from behind the South Stand goal.

Now, whilst on paper the addition of an area of the ground where like minded fans can get together to generate a loud and passionate atmosphere is without a doubt an admirable and positive move, however I'm sure I am not the only one that has reservations about the plan. First of all there is the heavy-handed "blue coats" which have plagued
the vocal South West corner for many a season now. If the same band of merry men are to rule the South Stand with such an iron fist then the experiment will fail at the first hurdle. I understand that there is a fine line to be tread with regards to health and safety regulations and the constant standing of fans and I fear this may work against the
club's plan for the stand.

There is then the club's addition of the "Family Zone" or whatever they are calling it which they have curiously positioned smack-bang next to the new singing section. Now don't get me wrong, I think it is fantastic that the club proactively work to engage our young followers and attract more youngsters to the ground, after all they are the
future of the club. However, the decision to situate this section next to a large stand of fans that will, lets be honest, more than likely be swearing as part of chants etc. seems a curious one and one that will surely bring some complaints from families bringing their young ones to the new, supposedly, family friendly section. I can't help but
wonder why the family section was not situated in the North West or North East corners for example.

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