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2012/13 SEASON PREVIEW
Ins & Out
SUNDERLAND SEASON FIXTURE: Click Here
At the conclusion of last season, the Black Cats sat in 13th position on the Premier League table. It was a position that arguably reflected the club's standing amongst the English top flight. However, it was a campaign full of highs and lows that saw Sunderland look like a top six club at times, but also like a club that could easily be relegated.
With veteran manager Steve Bruce in charge, Sunderland pieced together a squad that looked like it would challenge for top half honours during the 2011/12 campaign. The solid, experienced acquisitions of Wes Brown, John O'Shea, Craig Gardner and Sebastian Larsson, along with the deadline day loan signing of Nicklas Bendtner, seemed to add quality and depth to an already decent squad.
Performance did not meet expectation however, with the Black Cats only accruing 11 points from their first 14 matches and looking like one of the favourites for the drop. A November home loss to Wigan saw Bruce removed as manager and he was replaced by highly-rated Northern Irish tactician Martin O'Neill.
The former Villa manager sprung the Black Cats to life as they took the scalp of eventual champions Manchester City on their way to picking up 26 points from their next 14 games. However, the 'honeymoon' period ended after this stretch with a nine game winless run that pushed Sunderland out of the top half of the table.
The Black Cats main problem was a lack of goals. On loan Arsenal striker Bendtner chipped in with 8 goals with Larsson and Stephane Sessegnon chipping in with 7 goals apiece. While the two midfielders could be happy with their respective goal tallies, it showed that Sunderland were desperately in need of a talisman upfront. A damning statistic is that relegated clubs Bolton (46) and Blackburn (48) scored more goals than the goal-shy Black Cats (45).
The huge shining light from the season was the emergence of young Irish left winger James McClean, who chipped in with 5 goals and provided excellent service into the penalty area. McClean can be expected to develop further and be a crucial cog in Sunderland's campaign this season.
So far in the transfer market, O'Neill has only strengthened his squad with one player: central defender Carlos Cuellar, signed on a free from Aston Villa. This is a slight concern, particularly as Bendtner has returned to parent club Arsenal and Asamoah Gyan finally got his move away from the north-east.
The other departures shouldn't affect the club significantly with expendable defenders George McCartney and Michael Turner both leaving for more opportunities. But concern still remains for last seasons misfiring strikeforce that is further weakened by Bendtner's departure.
The Black Cats have been heavily linked with relegated Wolves striker Steven Fletcher. The Scotsman scored 12 goals for the bottom-of-the-table club and would be expected to score a similar amount with better service provided by the Sunderland midfielders.
O'Neill will be expecting a bigger contribution from South Korean forward Ji Dong-Won, who has potential and should now be more settled to the Premier League style of football. Project striker Connor Wickham could be read to find the back of the net more regularly and former Manchester United striker Fraizer Campbell should have returned to full fitness after a string of horrible injuries.
The central midfield axis is quite set after the emergence of Jack Colback as a quality box-to-box midfielder. Alongside captain Leo Cattermole, Colback excelled in a central role early in the season and quickly made the spot his own. Skipper Cattermole is a good, tough tackling player but needs to get his discipline issues sorted so they aren't a liability to his squad.
Goalkeeper Simon Mignolet is a dependable goalkeeper behind a back four which boasts significant experience. Former Manchester United quartet Brown, O'Shea, Phil Bardsley and Kieran Richardson form an integral part of the defensive options at O'Neill's disposal. With the addition of Cuellar, the Black Cats have a decent array of defensive options that should be enough to give them a platform to challenge for a top half finish.
The two important months in the fixture period for the Black Cats is the November/December period. During November, they face Aston Villa (H), Everton (A), Fulham (A), West Brom (H) and QPR (H). All these games are winnable for the Black Cats and it's important they accumulate as many points as possible because in December they face Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City and Tottenham.
By the turn of the year we will know the full story about Sunderland. It's just as important that they scrape a few draws when playing poorly as it is to win the games they are favourites in. Hopefully they aren't demoralised by the run of tough teams through December as this is when the top four battle heats up significantly.
THE COACH: MARTIN O'NEILL
Don't let the little, quiet Northern Irishman fool you; Martin O'Neill is one of the best tacticians in the Premier League. It was a great get by the Black Cats to entice O'Neill to the north-east and they will hope to reap the benefits during his second season in charge.
O'Neill first came to prominence when he managed Leicester City from 1995-2000. When his reign finished, Leicester fans regarded him as the best manager in the club's history after he led them to two
League Cup victories, a League Cup final and a string of top half Premier League finishes.
At the end of his contract at Leicester, O'Neill moved to Scotland to take the reigns of Glasgow giant Celtic. During his five years in Scotland ending 2005, O'Neill won 3 Scottish titles, # Scottish Cups and 1 League Cup, endearing himself to the Celtic fans. He eventually resigned to take care of his ill wife.
After a short period off, O'Neill took the reigns of Aston Villa and after an 11th placed finish in his first season in 06/07, he then led the club to three consecutive 6th place finishes in the years after. A dispute with the board meant he resigned in 2010 and after nearly 18 months off, he was appointed Sunderland manager in December 2011.
O'Neill's record proves he is an astute manager. His method and tactics have been similar from club to club. Once assembling a solid squad without spending much money, O'Neill instills a hard working discipline into the squad who are always expected to "put in a shift".
While working hard defensively, the team is expected to break forward quickly and catch the opposition out on the counter. After having a full pre-season with his squad, it will be interesting to see whether O'Neill can fully implement his style upon the squad and replicate the excellent results he has had with his previous clubs.
EXPECTED TO FINISH: 10th
WOULD BE HAPPY WITH: 13th