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From The Durham Times: Gardner's Red Helps Sunderland

Every week we provide views to The Durham Times. Here's our latest column which was in the paper yesterday. Just buy it next week will you?

Stu Forster

It's rare that a red card helps the team who are reduced to ten men, but that is exactly what Craig Gardner's dismissal did to Sunderland. It forced Di Canio to reshuffle a team lacking shape and cohesion, with too many square pegs in round holes simply not performing.

The fact that so many found themselves out of position was in part a result of the ever growing injury and suspension list. The latest addition, Stephane Sessegnon, left a gaping hole in attack, which Di Canio decided to fill with Adam Johnson. The logic in replacing one tricky, creative player with another behind Danny Graham was obvious, so no complaints there. Many supporters would have done the same.

By moving Johnson, the right side of midfield was vacated and it was the wide areas where Di Canio got things wrong. James McClean is an average footballer on his favoured left side. When he plays on the right, anything that is good about his game is lost. He simply does not have the technique to cut in and cross the ball effectively.

Jack Colback filled in on the left, with the Italian head coach understandably opting to reunite Sebastian Larsson and Alfred N'Diaye in central midfield. As well as those two have played together, it would have made more sense to use Colback in the middle, McClean on the left and Larsson on the right. It would have meant players being used in areas they have more experience of and are most comfortable in.

Although this did not quite happen when Gardner saw red, the balance that was restored to the side with Johnson on the right of midfield and McClean on the left was palpable.

In a disorganised, uncreative opening 34 minutes preceding the red card, Sunderland mustered very few moments of goalmouth action, having just five shots, all off target. In the subsequent hour, a man down, Sunderland dominated for the most part, having a further 10 shots, 3 on target and scoring what could be a crucial equaliser in the hunt for Premier League safety.

An equaliser had seemed unimaginable with eleven men the way the match was panning out. To come away with a point and a deserved one at that with ten highlights just how significant the turnaround was.

This is not too criticise Di Canio too much. As poor as his initial selection was, he has a mediocre squad, which is shorn of its top goal scorers and its captain. He has a limited number of players to work with and put together a side he felt could go out and beat Stoke City but it was a shuffle too far.

Going into this weekend's game with Southampton, minus the suspended Gardner, Di Canio would be better served playing as many players in their "best positions" as possible.

The key exception to that would be "Jack of all trades" Colback who would be best utilised at right back. With Phil Bardsley so abject at Aston Villa and then overlooked until the dying minutes against Stoke, it's hard to see a way back for the former Manchester Utd full back.

Colback has done a more than adequate job at right back three times this season and was again solid against Stoke when he filled the position vacated by Gardner. His performance in the win over Everton was remarkably good for a left footer who considers his natural position to be the centre of midfield.

Even with Colback out of the frame for a midfield berth, there would still be scope to use Johnson through the middle again if need be or to push Sebastian Larsson further forward and bring in Vaughan to partner N'Diaye.

Whichever way you look at it, the situation is far from ideal but there are certainly better options than the line-up that started against Stoke. Di Canio will be aware of this, no doubt. Indeed, the team selections against Villa and Stoke show how unafraid he is to change both a winning side and one that has failed miserably.

Ultimately, the best policy at this stage is to keep things as simple as possible. With survival very much on the line, now is not the time to experiment. It is arguable whether an unchanged side from the one that beat Everton would have served up a better performance against Villa - individual errors were the main cause of that collapse - but now, with at least one change necessary, a rethink and some tinkering are definitely required.

Of course the biggest positive of all is that, forced or not, Di Canio's changes worked. Sunderland were able to dominate large parts of the match with ten men, clearly inspired by his half time team talk. Sunderland played with the same ten players from the 34th until the 86th minute. That the same group of seemingly lost underperformers were able to transform quite so incredibly is testament to the manager's abilities as a motivator and organiser and it these skills he will need to draw upon if Sunderland are to retain their Premier League status.


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