BY WASIM PARKAR – FAN FUEL BLOGGER
The next stop in the Barclays Premier League season preview takes us to Wearside as Sunderland embark on their first full season under the management of the mercurial Paolo Di Canio.
The summer has been one of upheaval at the Stadium of Light, as Di Canio has ruthlessly cleared out many players who had become too complacent and were bad influences on the squad. In their place, the Italian manager has brought players in from various parts of the world, managing to sign some top-notch internationals along with a few relative unknowns from continental Europe. The biggest name to arrive at Sunderland is undoubtedly the versatile Italian international Emanuele Giaccherini signed from Juventus. Di Canio has claimed he is not yet done his transfer business for the summer, so more intriguing signings can be expected.
Di Canio’s overhaul could prove to be the key to Sunderland’s reinvigoration or could just as well end up being portrayed as a rash accumulation of players who can’t gel together to the detriment of the team. Going by some impressive pre-season results, the early indications are positive for the new recruits, however things under Di Canio can collapse very quickly if his volatile temperament comes to the fore in the demanding cauldron of the Premier League.
On defence: Any player that grows up under the tutelage of Sir Alex Ferguson will embody discipline, hard work and character. That is exactly what Sunderland captain John O’Shea possesses in droves, and Di Canio will use the Irishman’s leadership qualities as the example for every player in the squad to follow. During his days at Manchester United, O’Shea’s remit required filling in various different positions, however with experience he has cemented himself as a reliable centre-back.
Alongside O’Shea, Di Canio has a host of options. In some pre-season matches O’Shea has been paired with former United colleague Wes Brown, who was excellent on return from injury. Di Canio has also bought in Modibo Diakité and Valentin Roberge to add extra competition, and though Carlos Cuellar doesn’t figure prominently in the manager’s plans he could play a part if he isn’t sold before the transfer deadline.
Craig Gardner will continue in his role as reliable right-back, and Jack Cork has been playing at left-back in pre-season even though it’s not his natural position. Di Canio will certainly be looking for a natural left-back in the mould of Danny Rose who excelled at the Stadium of Light during his loan spell last season.
Finally, there is a change between the sticks on Wearside. After selling the excellent Simon Mignolet to Liverpool, Di Canio has brought in compatriot Vito Mannone from Arsenal. Mannone can fire in spurts, often capable of going on a hot streak of saves that win matches. However, he is equally culpable in making silly errors, and the feeling persists that Sunderland have downgraded in the goalkeeping department.
The midfield: Sebastian Larsson has been Sunderland’s most reliable performer for three seasons. Diligent in tracking back and decent with the ball, Larsson is the player most responsible for keeping Sunderland ticking in midfield. Add in to the mix his brilliant delivery from corners and set pieces, he has been disproportionately responsible for many goals in a team that has struggled with scoring. Larsson is also versatile enough to play on the right wing when the need arises, impressively doing so while still being involved with the play.
New signing Cabral has been ever present in pre-season suggesting that Di Canio is certainly keen to start the season with the man from Cape Verde in central midfield alongside Larsson. David Vaughan could also be used in the centre of the park, with his ability to pass and run with the left foot an effective tool to change the focal point of the attack whenever Sunderland struggle to break down defences.
The player in midfield with the most attention focused on him is Emanuele Giaccherini. The Italian provides a host of different options for the team. He is certainly capable of dropping back to provide cover, but his most exciting attributes are in attack. He can play on either wing, or centrally to keep the ball moving with his short passing. He is at his most dangerous when he ghosts in to the box, and is brilliant at linking up with others when deployed in the hole behind the forward.
On the attack: In additions to Giaccherini’s attacking contributions from midfield, Di Canio has some variety further up the pitch. Adam Johnson has been playing on the left wing in pre-season, but has also been substituted before the 70th minute in all games so far. If Di Canio can cajole the best out of the English winger, Sunderland will not struggle to create chances. It’s an important season for Johnson with the World Cup coming up, but if he fails to deceive, Di Canio won’t hesitate in playing young Swedish attacker David Moberg Karlsson.
As Steven Fletcher continues his recuperation from injury, American forward Jozy Altidore has been brought in. Altidore is a much-improved player compared to the struggling striker seen at Hull three seasons ago. Altidore’s strength and speed will be invaluable to Sunderland in the Premier League, while his improved finishing skills should ensure a better chance conversion rate for the Mackems.
Finally, the joker of the pack is Benin international Stéphane Sességnon. While he may commit silly tackles from time to time, Sességnon is capable of overwhelming defenders through a combination of physicality and trickery. Sességnon is also very adept with his movement in the attacking third, one of the rare players who can match speed of thought with speed on the ball. Sunderland will certainly need Sességnon to continue contributing goals for the team to prosper.
Conclusion: Despite the external appearance of someone who relies solely on instinct, there is actually some method to Paolo Di Canio’s madness. The media will continue to shine the spotlight on the manager’s political beliefs and will be eagerly awaiting Sunderland’s first blip in form to heap pressure on the Italian. On closer introspection, Di Canio is certainly refreshing a team that had gone stagnant and stale under both his predecessors. With a few more signings expected, Sunderland can certainly aspire to their best finish in a while, as long as the players are on board to implement the vision of their manager.