SAY what you like about Martin O’Neill, but the Sunderland manager is persistent.
Back in the summer, during his first real chance to assess and rejig his playing squad, the Wearside supremo firmly outlined Steven Fletcher as his key target for the vacant striker’s spot in his side.
Despite three months of negotiations and his share of setbacks, O’Neill finally got his man with a week of the transfer window to spare.
This time around, he has acted even quicker.
Wins over Southampton and Manchester City in recent weeks papered over some cracks in the Sunderland side, and had some wondering whether or not the January strengthening they had previously advocated was as necessary as before.
A spirited but defeated display against Tottenham did little to shape thoughts either way, but 2013’s first game – a demoralising 3-0 defeat at Liverpool – laid the side’s problems bare.
So, Wednesday’s announcement of the arrival of Alfred N’Diaye was welcome.
Just nine days into the window, O’Neill had managed to address a huge hole in his central midfield.
Following the departure of former boss Steve Bruce, the Sunderland midfield was left populated with one-paced footballers, tidy in their own right but often unlikely to affect a game. With the exception of Lee Cattermole, O’Neill has had around five midfielders to choose from in the centre, none of whom offer anything obviously different.
N’Diaye addresses that problem.
The Frenchman, aged 22, is a combative, dominant player, one who O’Neill will look upon to seize games by the scruff of the neck and drive his side forward.
N’Diaye has notched four goals this season so far for Bursaspor in Turkey, but goals will not be top of his remit on Wearside. Instead he will be expected to help the Black Cats gain a firm foothold in games, something they have often struggled with in recent months.
In signing N’Diaye, O’Neill has also dispelled plenty of myths surrounding his own transfer activity.
The argument that the Ulsterman refuses to take a chance on foreign players cannot be used here. Nor can the argument that he doesn’t look for bargains; despite clearly being exactly the type of player this Sunderland side needed, costing £3.5m.
In all, this signing, regardless of N’Diaye’s future success, is a positive one.
First and foremost, it reflects the faith chairman Ellis Short has in his manager. Far from throttling the cash funds through January, Short has made them readily available. Rumours abound that there will be more through the door, with Senegalese defender Kader Mangane and Swansea striker Danny Graham heavily linked. If they arrive over the coming weeks, it will be yet more proof that O’Neill is to be given ample time to build his own squad.
Furthermore, it confirms that O’Neill knows the extent of his task at Sunderland. The lack of variety in central midfield has been no secret, but some have used it as a stick to beat O’Neill, asking why he didn’t address the issue in the summer. The answer is simple: such were the deficiencies in the squad, there were other more pressing situations to address.
Now, having done that, O’Neill has moved forward and sealed the signing of a man who, though he is by no means certain to be a success, at least fits the mould of what the side needs.
N’Diaye can also slot in at centre- back, another problem position, while the alleged pursuit of the aforementioned Mangane suggests O’Neill has already outlined the next position that needs strengthening.
Whether N’Diaye will make his debut against West Ham on Saturday remains to be seen, but any that feared O’Neill’s comments when the signing was announced – “N’Diaye can offer us strength in depth” – mean the youngster will be used as backup should probably not read too much into those comments.
O’Neill is renowned for framing his comments to the press carefully, and will have been wary of alienating those players N’Diaye is looking to displace. It is highly unlikely that the manager will not seek to thrust the Frenchman into the first team as soon as he feels it is possible.
Despite a very poor performance at Liverpool, and an equally poor opening hour at Bolton last weekend, there are signs for optimism in 2013 on Wearside. The capture of N’Diaye shows ambition on the club’s behalf and not a small amount of intrigue, investing as they have in what is, in terms of English football, a totally unknown quantity.
Whatever the results of this transfer, nothing has been more clear – O’Neill knows better than anyone what he needs to do to make his time at Sunderland a successful one.