The appointment of the volatile and passionate Paolo Di Canio as Sunderland manager was bold to say the least. With the Black Cats in freefall – one win in 10 games – and the relegation zone looming ever closer, something needed to be done. The gamble with the unproven Di Canio was both decisive and divisive, but what has changed?
After a 2-1 loss at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea, there were early signs that Di Canio had improved Sunderland’s organisation. Although the Mackems still lacked attacking fluency, the ex-West Ham, Sheffield Wednesday and Celtic striker had increased the work rate and teamwork of the side. Sunderland captain John O’Shea remarked about the changes in training that had helped improve the side’s shape.
"We're working a lot without the ball, on positioning, shape and pattern. The manager is very clued-in as to what is needed to get this team to survive and we're doing all we can on the training pitch to make sure we do." O’Shea told The Guardian.
"There's an emphasis on team shape and pattern, we're doing quite a bit more on that than in the past and it's something United did before big games."
The improvement on team shape and pattern in match situations was further demonstrated on Sunday in the 3-0 derby win over Newcastle. They battled hard to earn an even split on possession, and while Newcastle had twice as many shots on target, Sunderland maintained two banks of four and never lost their heads.
At the other end, three goals from just inside or outside the box indicated that Di Canio has given his attacking players their belief back. The previously misfiring Stephane Sessegnon and the under-performing Adam Johnson scored, attacking quickly and exploiting space as it opened up whereas before they stumbled and bumbled their way into defenders and down dead ends.
Sunderland face a tough test against a formidable Everton side before three massive games against relegation rivals Aston Villa, Stoke, and Southampton. If Di Canio can continue to provide the team with direction, especially in terms of their attack, then Sunderland remove themselves from danger quickly.
It remains to be seen what happens when teams come to the Stadium of Light, happy to defend their way to a point, but if Di Canio can get the likes of Sessegnon, Johnson, James McClean and Danny Graham firing, then he will have proved all the doubters wrong and can look forward to a summer of altering and improving the Sunderland squad.
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