With the Sunderland squad scheduled to return to the Academy of Light on Wednesday the 3rd of July to begin their first pre-season under Paolo Di Canio, I've been looking into the Italian's first ever pre-season as a manager at Swindon Town in 2011 to try and divine what may await the Sunderland squad over the coming months, and the early fixtures of the 2013/14 season.
One thing seems abundantly clear - they will be be entered into a fitness regime the likes of which most have never seen before. As he did during his two pre-seasons at Swindon, Di Canio will take the Sunderland squad out to a training camp in Italy in order to foster a greater team spirit and, crucially, to hone his players to their physical peak. Di Canio's boot camps are not comprised of classic army 'cross country until you're sick' methods (see: Full Metal Jacket and Band of Brothers), but instead are carefully planned and executed modern fitness regimes made up of exercises such as short sprints and middle-distance runs, followed by on the ball training sessions. The shorter runs, with small breaks in between, are believed to better simulate the demands of a football match, and the practice sessions with the ball at the end are intended to make sure that players are not just physically fit, but also still capable of utilising their footballing abilities even when pushed to their limits.
This demanding fitness regime is clearly something that is drastically needed at Sunderland, where players such as (the thankfully departed) Titus Bramble and Danny Graham looked far from physically fit during last season, to an extent that is shocking in a professional athlete. Likewise, even more committed players like Sebastian Larsson and Adam Johnson were rarely capable of finishing 90 minutes of football last term. Hopefully a couple of weeks of hard graft with the Italian and his trusted lieutenants, first-team coach Fabrizio Piccareta and fitness coach Claudio Donatelli, will shape Di Canio's Sunderland into the fittest in the Premier League, just as Di Canio's Swindon were the fittest in League 2 as they won the 2011/12 title.
As important as this fitness work will be for our potential success next season, the team bonding aspect of the two-week trip could be just as crucial. It is widely expected that by the start of next season Sunderland could have an almost entirely different starting eleven to the one that trotted out at White Hart Lane on the final day of last season. Queens Park Rangers last season showed the perils of simply bringing in a host of new names and assuming that they would soon gel into a coherent team. Likewise, Sunderland fans do not have to cast their minds back far to remember the lack of unity in our squad after Steve Bruce's summer recruitment drive in 2011.
Whilst it is fair to say that most Sunderland fans have been vocal in the need for a squad overhaul this summer, it is likely that Di Canio would have wished to bring in a whole raft of new faces regardless of the quality of the players already at his disposal on Wearside. During his first season at Swindon, Paolo Di Canio made use of an extraordinary 41 players, having a busy time recruiting during both transfer windows and topping up his squad with loans throughout the season. Martin O'Neil may have believed in selecting roughly the same team from around 14 or 15 players for the majority of the season, but our new Italian manager showed at Swindon that he is a firm believer in chopping and changing his side in order to meet the strengths and weaknesses of his opposition. But Di Canio's scouting and preparation is more in depth than just thinking about the other team. He also takes into consideration, in his own words:
The state of the field, whether it is good or not, I look at the weather two days before. Obviously it is really important to if you have a more physical player or a technical presence if you need that on a bad surface.
At Swindon, players such as defensive midfielder Oliver Risser came in and out of the side depending on whether Di Canio felt his skill-set was needed. Likewise the young striker Billy Bodin found himself brought into the starting line-up ahead of more experienced teammates when his manager felt he could be used to exploit an opposition's defensive immobility. We have already seen signs that such a 'tinkerman' strategy will be used at Sunderland. Towards the end of last season Di Canio spoke of how desperately Sunderland needed striking re-enforcements, indicating that the trio of Steven Fletcher, Danny Graham and Connor Wickham was not enough, and that a true strike-force required five strikers with a varying set of skills:
I do not want to be critical, but if you are a team who wants to stay up or a team who wants to win the league, you need five strikers.
Not three or four, five – one of which should be a young one like Wickham.
This club only had Fletcher until January and Sessegnon, who is a second striker.
What happens if Fletcher gets a cold?
Danny Graham arrived in January and now he is back in the team, but you cannot afford to be short on strikers.
Wherever you are in the league you need to score goals.
With the powerful and pacey Jozy Altidore reportedly a top target, as well as links with a host of other nippy strikers, Di Canio appears to be attempting to follow this aim through. The rotation used at Swindon suggests that the Italian will attempt to assemble a group of strikers with differing but complimentary skills, giving him the option of selecting which ones are most appropriate to the different challenges of any given game.
There are also indications that he will attempt to do the same in central midfield. The options we had at the club at the end of last season (Lee Cattermole, David Vaughan, Jack Colback, Craig Gardner, Seb Larsson and Alfred N'Diaye) were all very similar types of footballer, with only Cattermole and N'Diaye offering anything different to the team. Di Canio seems determined to change this, with Basel's defensive midfielder Cabral brought in on a free transfer, Alfred Duncan of Inter Milan heavily linked and, just this morning, Tottenham Hotspurs' Tom Huddlestone also reportedly a Sunderland target. Were all of these transfers to come off then Sunderland would suddenly find themselves with a smorgasbord of different central midfielders to pick between for game, crucially all of whom could bring something different to the table.
There has been some speculation on whether the 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 so far preferred by Di Canio during his short time as Sunderland manager is his favoured strategy, or merely just what he felt would get the best out of another manager's players before he ripped everything up and started again in the summer. If his time at Swindon is any indication, then the 4-4-2 is here to stay. An excellent article written by Swindon fan Alex Cooke examined in depth Di Canio's first season as Swindon manager, and drew comparisons between his tactics and those of his fellow Italians Fabio Capello and Arrigo Saachi (a comparison also drawn by our very own Michael Graham), as well as current England manager, and former Inter Milan boss, Roy Hodgson.
So the evidence suggests that Sunderland will continue to play a 4-4-2 that concentrates on staying compact and cautious in its own half, but also finding a place for flair and creativity, especially on the wings, once in the opposition half. However, this need not be definitive. If we take the comparison with Capello further; the ex-England manager was above all a pragmatist, not an idealist. As Jonathan Wilson expertly examined for the Guardian, the current Russia manager is a "chameleon" who can adapt pragmatically to whatever situation he finds. Whilst the Italian is willing to compromise on shape, he will always emphasise discipline and solidity in his teams. Likewise Roy Hodgson, considered to be one of the strictest exponents of 4-4-2 in the game, has recently shown a willingness to trial 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 systems with England. Whilst this is all just speculation, it may be that as Di Canio grows as a manager he will become less wedded to one particular system, yet continue to emphasise the discipline and solidity that he also believes to be crucial to success.
However, it should be mentioned that Di Canio's first season as manager was not perfect. There are several factors from that opening year of his managerial career that may prove slightly worrying to Sunderland fans. Firstly, I'm sure everyone enjoyed the exuberance of Di Canio's celebrations during the Tyne-Wear derby (if you've somehow forgotten how amazing they were, then here's a selection of GIFs showcasing them), but the passion shown on the ASDA touchline is very much a constant part of Di Canio's managerial behaviour, with the man himself saying:
I am never going to lose my passion, even in the technical area because I am a passionate man and you need to send a message to your players with your advice.
Whilst this may be great fun to watch for fans, referees do not seem so appreciative of the Italian's antics, and by my count he was sent to the stands an unbelievable five times during his first season with Swindon Town.
Another trait of Di Canio's that we have seen during his short cameo at Sunderland is his willingness to publicly castigate players if he doesn't feel they have acted appropriately. For us, this came in the form of singling Phil Bardsley out for criticism following the emergence of pictures of the defender lying covered in £50 notes on a casino floor, as well as Di Canio's accusation that he could tell that the Mancunian Scotsman was hungover the next day at training (or "blurry" as Paolo rather charmingly termed it).
At Swindon there were, over his time there, spats with Leon Clarke (though this was proved to be instigated by the player, rather than Di Canio), Mehdi Kerrouche, Wes Foderingham and a few other players. With Kerrouche it emerged that the Algerian, at the time Swindon's top scorer, was dropped after being deemed not to be pulling his weight in training. Whilst it is pleasing that Di Canio is not willing to let his players get away with unprofessional attitudes, it is also slightly worrying that he can be so quick to single players out for public criticism on the back of a poor performance, as he did to Foderingham.
A second concern with Di Canio's first season at Swindon is the sheer number of players he used. Certainly the improved fitness of his players was a factor in their success, but Di Canio was also backed in the loan market by the Swindon board whenever he felt that he needed a new option, or that a certain player could no longer be trusted. Whilst this is a strategy that may work lower down the divisions, there's no way it could work in the Premier League.
So it is clear that Di Canio has made mistakes in the past as a manager, but there is hope to be found in his belief that it is through making mistakes that we learn best:
The best manager, as in life with the best man, is not a man who doesn’t make a mistake, but how he learns from it, and learns how to recover from this mistake.
Hopefully, then, as Di Canio plans his first full season in charge of Sunderland, he will look back at some of the mistakes of his time at Swindon, and seek to correct them. Considering the Italian's utterly driven nature, it wouldn't be surprising to find that he comes good on his word and is a better manager for the errors he has made in the past.