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SPOTLIGHT: Why has it gone so badly wrong for Sunderland?
WHETHER it was intentional or instinctive, Martin O'Neill applauded some of Sunderland's attacking moves during last Saturday's defeat to Aston Villa. Given the shallow nature of some Black Cats displays, he could have been forgiven had he been sarcastic.
Statistics don't always tell the truth. But on this occasion, the numbers are a true reflection of the problems the Northern Irishman needs to address.
O'Neill, whose side has won just once in 17 games, takes his squad to Everton today looking to end a run of 489 minutes since a Sunderland player found the net. They need no reminding that the own goal from Newcastle's Demba Ba in the Wear-Tyne derby remains the only goal during that time.
On some occasions that can be put down to misfortune. Having conjured up only four shots on target in 360 minutes, however, such a return illustrates where things have been going wrong.
Defensively, Sunderland have been strong. Only Manchester City and Swansea City have scored more than once against them.
They have also kept five clean sheets.
Carlos Cuellar, aside from allowing Gabriel Agbonlahor too much space last weekend, has brought with him experience, an aerial presence and a strong playing style to give the back four another option.
There have also been promising displays at full-back, with goalkeeper Simon Mignolet developing in to one of the Premier League's most consistent.
Throw in the tenacity of Lee Cattermole - 51 out of 59 completed passes against Villa, 12 in the attacking third - and O'Neill has the foundations for a strong unit in the top-flight.
To make the next step he must find a solution to the problems bogging down a team he had hoped would be battling for a top ten place by now.
CONFIDENCE HAS TAKEN A BATTERING
The biggest concern O'Neill has is that too many creative players are playing without confidence. After last weekend's defeat to Villa, O'Neill said: "We just have to keep working on things, but how to bring back confidence is the 64,000 dollar question. It will come."
When? That's the issue. It is hard to imagine Sunderland returning from Everton - where they have won once in almost 21 years - with a morale-boosting three points, so all eyes will then turn to next week's trip to Fulham and back-to-back home dates with West Brom and QPR.
O'Neill insists the training ground is the place to put things right, but it will be in front of the crowds at places like Craven Cottage and the Stadium of Light where the players need to find their feet.
The bit of luck that ended with Ba gifting Sunderland the equaliser against Derby last month failed to have the effect Wearside folk had been hoping for.
So ending 90 minutes knowing they have threatened the opposition's goal and actually hitting the net is the only way confidence will return.
THE WINGERS HAVE BEEN WOEFUL
For goals to flow there is a need for the men on the flanks to sparkle. So far, neither James McClean nor Adam Johnson has hit the heights that their manager has been expecting.
When O'Neill has been asked to comment on the pair's situation and form he has always given the impression their struggles have even surprised him. He has to hope it is purely a dip in form rather than anything more serious.
Starting with McClean, the Republic of Ireland international has had a whirlwind year and the effects have clearly taken their toll. When he was outstanding last season it was largely because he was an unknown quantity, basically being asked to get down the line and deliver crosses.
McClean needs to go back to the basics that made him an overnight sensation, sticking to the wing rather than cutting inside. Whether that will fit in with a system including both Johnson and Stephane Sessegnon has to be doubted at this stage.
Johnson has been suffering from his own culture shock. After bursting on to the scene with Middlesbrough in the Championship a few years ago, most of his impressive displays for Manchester City and England arrived in flashes.
Those flashes were during games when he had more world renowned players alongside him, for opponents to keep an eye on. The space such players created for him inevitably helped.
Every time he plays for Sunderland he will now be the man to watch, the match-winner to keep an eye on, as has been shown by teams doubling up against him. The sooner he comes to terms and adapts to that the greater Sunderland and Johnson will be.
WHERE SHOULD SESSEGNON PLAY?
With Johnson and McClean - or Seb Larsson last weekend - supposed to be providing the width to a lone striker in O'Neill's ideal plan there is a requirement for the man in the hole to chip in with goals.
For all Sessegnon has the ability to cause problems for whatever defence he comes up against, he has never been a forward capable of finding the net on a regular basis.
The 28-year-old showed signs of returning to the levels expected of him against Villa, but even at his very best he is not someone likely to find the net every other week.
Sessegnon has not found the net since March, when he scored the last of his eight goals of the season. He has only scored ten in almost two years on Wearside, which is not a record reliable enough for someone operating as a second striker.
Even before his move to the Premier League he was never renowned for his goalscoring. The unpredictable talent only hit eight goals in 77 league appearances for Paris St Germain, six in 61 for Le Mans and ten in 68 for Creteil.
As he has shown in recent weeks when Fletcher has not been hitting the net, Sessegnon has been unable to make up for it when the £12m man has not added to his tally.
Playing the free role is likely to be the best position for the Benin international, but he could be too much of a luxury in times of trouble.
FLETCHER HAS TO LEAD THE LINE AND SCORE
due to the dips in form of Johnson, McClean and Sessegnon there has had to be an even greater onus on the goalscoring prowess of the man at the top of the formation.
Since his arrival from Wolverhampton Wanderers that man has been Fletcher - and, certainly initially, his record was perfect.
But the 26-year-old's emphatic start of five goals in his first four league matches for Sunderland actually papered over the cracks which have resurfaced in the last six weeks.
Even when he was finding the net he was doing so every time he had a shot on goal, which was not very often because of Sunderland's lack of invention going forward.
But now those goals have dried up there is a need for him to bring others into play more than he was before. As the figurehead of the attacks, he is expected to hold up play and create space for those around him.
That has not been happening enough, but with time O'Neill would like to think the Scotland striker, Sessegnon, McClean and Johnson will all develop a greater understanding.
Such a formula was what O'Neill worked to at Aston Villa, but he needs them to gel with Fletcher quickly if Sunderland are to climb away from the lower reaches of the Premier League standings.
SHOULD MONEY HAVE BEEN SPENT IN OTHER AREAS?
Throughout the summer there was slow-rising concern around Wearside. With the exception of Carlos Cuellar as a free agent, the expected summer of change during O'Neill's first close season in charge never materialised.
But when he agreed to invest £22m in Fletcher and Johnson at the back end of August there was a belief that Sunderland were ready to take off under him.
The extra attacking influence and options looked certain to lift the club and a squad boasting a pretty efficient defensive model, but could the substantial investment have been spread into other areas?
With time both Fletcher and Johnson should prove to be worthwhile signings and O'Neill basically had few alternatives when Wolves and Manchester City demanded such high fees.
But having been unable to bring in any other new faces during the summer - with the exception of free agent Louis Saha - there is a justifiable argument that more investment was required in other parts of the squad.
There doesn't seem to be competition for McClean, Larsson and Johnson for a start, while O'Neill clearly doesn't fancy Fraizer Campbell, Connor Wickham or Ji Dong-Won to win matches for him.
January can't come soon enough for Sunderland, but by then fans will hope their club is not in the midst of a relegation struggle once more.
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