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Is Martin O'Neill Too Negative?

O'Neill is often criticised for setting his sides up too defensively. Is this true? And if it is, does it matter or is the Northern Irishman causing Johnny Cochrane to turn in his grave?

Matthew Lewis

Listen out to conversations from the terraces, talk to fans in pubs and look on any football message boards, and you'll learn that Sunderland AFC has a menace within its midst. A plague that will stop the club from ever taking the leap from it's current position of mid-table mediocrity into the wonders of the Europa League, with its promises of glorious nights in relatively obscure Eastern European cities. The cause of this problem is a 5ft 10in Northern Irishman, and in particular his penchant for 'negative, defensive football'. Certain sections of the Sunderland faithful aren't happy with what they see as dull days out at the Stadium of Light, and they aren't going to take it much longer.

We can't exactly blame these supporters for feeling this way. They watch the team labour to dour, scoreless draws and long for the free-flowing, attacking football played by the likes of Billy Bingham, Len Shackleton and Trevor Ford during the great team of the early 1950's, or the youth-filled, goal crazy squad put together by Johnny Cochrane in the 1930's. Martin O'Neill is shamelessly turning away from the 'Sunderland style' of football; a legacy that goes back literally fifty years ago.

Perhaps, however, we're being to harsh on O'Neill here. We should first look at the statistics to see if Sunderland really are as 'negative' as fans think they are. A good way to see if the team play too deep is to look at how much match action takes place within the defensive third. So far this season, The Black Cats have spent, on average, 30% of matches inside their own final third. This seems like a lot, especially when you compare it to the 25% of action that takes place within our attacking third, and we might decide to burn O'Neill at the stake on the basis of this alone.

However, when we look at other teams in a similar position to Sunderland, this isn't something particularly out of the ordinary. Our next opponents West Brom, a team regularly praised for their brand of football, also spend 30% of their game perched inside their own defensive third. Fulham, with their free-jazz attack, and their chain-smoking, erotic, artist forward Dimitar Berbatov, also have similar stats.

One of the main criticisms of O'Neill's side this season is that they don't get enough shots in on goals. There is some truth to this, as generally Sunderland manage, on average, two or three shots less a match than they're nearest rivals. However, the number of shots a team manages isn't any fair judge on how exciting or attacking a team is. Just because a team are having a lot of shots, it doesn't mean that they're getting them anywhere near the goal. Shots on target are a better, if not perfect, indicator of how many good chances a team are creating.

On average Sunderland have 4 shots on target per match. This may not seems like a lot, but it's still one more than Stoke, and the same as West Ham and West Brom. Furthermore, a higher percentage of The Black Cat's shots come from within the 18-yard box than most of their mid-table rivals, suggesting that the team are more interested in creating good goalscoring opportunities than simply shooting from anywhere.

The statistics would seem to suggest that Sunderland aren't any less attacking than any of their mid-table rivals. Of course stats don't prove everything, and many critics will point to how O'Neill often sets his teams out very defensively against big teams, sometime playing purely for the point and not even trying to win the game. This is an invalid criticism. Take, for example, last weekends game at home to Arsenal. This season has shown that the Gunners often play too narrow, and struggle to break deep defences down, so O'Neill looked to exploit this. He used similar tactics in the home match against Manchester City and it worked superbly there. When it wasn't working against Arsenal, O'Neill sent the team out in the second half with more of an attacking motive.

Anyone who thinks our manager always sets out to defend for a point against the big boys would do well to remember the match at the Etihad last season, where Sunderland came close to executing a perfect counter-attacking game. No-one can accuse the Ulsterman of setting his team out to defend there. It would seem that O'Neill sets up his team in a way that he feels will get the best result in that particular match, and if that includes being 'defensive', then so be it. To suggest that defending deep automatically means you're not trying to win the game is ludicrous in these more tactically nuanced times.

Some may criticise O'Neill for sitting on the lead and trying to defend too early in that game at the Etihad, causing the team to lose out on two points. Similar criticisms were levelled after the draw at St James Park last season, as well as after the game away at West Ham earlier on the season. However, it should also be remembered that Sunderland have used similar tactics to defend a lead under O'Neill and its worked perfectly, for example during the afromentioned match at home to Man City, or the away game at Southampton. Perhaps if we hadn't have sat back against Newcastle back in March, the Tynesiders would simply have taken apart our ten men and went on to victory.

Of course, even if Martin O'Neill is as defensive-minded as some make out, why should it even matter? Despite Sunderland's frailties at the back, they still have one of the better records in the league, and that is down to our backroom staff's own organisational skills. Surely this is something that should be praised and not derided. The notion that attacking football is somehow the 'right way' to play the game is a mistaken one, and one that is too often followed in modern football. It would be different if we played with the same soul-crushing brand of football played by Alex McLeish, but we clearly don't.

The Peter Reid team at the turn of the millennium could be described as negative, and no-one minded then. In fact, with it's reliance on wing-play and getting good service to the forward, that side's style of play isn't actually all that different to the one we have now. In the modern era, Sunderland have no history of playing attacking football, and as long as Martin O'Neill continues to steadily improve the team, I'll have no problem if that continues, even if it upsets those descendants of the Johnny Cochrane style of play.

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