Why Sunderland's Di Canio effect can't last

STATS ZONE OVER EUROPE: FourFourTwo's award-winning FREE app now also covers the top flights in Italy, Spain, France and Germany (as well as England, Champions League and Europa League). Michael Cox uses it to compare Paolo Di Canio's Sunderland to the Martin O'Neill vintage…   

Paolo Di Canio’s short stint at Sunderland has followed the expected pattern: controversy, knee-slides and plenty of extravagant hand gestures on the touchline.

And then there’s the results – a change of manager often leads to a sudden burst of good form, but six points from three matches against Chelsea, Newcastle and Everton is a highly impressive return given Sunderland’s form over the course of 2012/13.

There’s something rather clichéd about Di Canio’s tactical instructions so far. Sunderland don’t appear significantly better organised than under Martin O’Neill, nor has Di Canio made any obvious tactical tweaks between games to exploit weaknesses in opponents. Instead, Sunderland’s game has been about energy and commitment – they’re hardly playing great football, but the level of motivation has certainly improved.

Di Canio’s first game was at Stamford Bridge – where he famously scored a long-range effort as West Ham battled relegation ten seasons ago. From the first whistle, his instructions were clear – Sunderland raced out of the traps and closed down high up the pitch, with 20-year-old Connor Wickham used upfront to lead the pressing, and Stephane Sessegnon doing an important job just behind.

Sunderland dominated the first half and deserved their 1-0 lead, but such fierce running was unsustainable, and there was an obvious drop-off in the second half – see the positions of their tackles – as Sunderland eventually lost 2-1.

Nevertheless, a debut defeat at Stamford Bridge wasn’t a disaster, and while Sunderland rode their luck in the 3-0 derby victory over Newcastle in Di Canio’s next game, they continued with the same feisty approach.

The major difference from Martin O’Neill’s reign is Sunderland’s attitude without the ball – under the Ulsterman, they sat incredibly deep and allowed the opposition to dictate the play. They’re still not dominating possession, but opponents aren’t allowed such time on the ball. Compare the number of interceptions from the Newcastle game, with one of O’Neill’s final away matches, at QPR.

With the ball, Sunderland haven’t been playing slick passing football – but there’s a clear determination to get forward as quickly as possible. With heavy pressing and direct attacking from a side playing in red and white striped shirts, there’s almost a hint of Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao in the way Sunderland have been attacking.

The Black Cats’ pass completion rate has been extremely low in their victories over Newcastle and Everton, at 64% and 67% respectively, a poor figure considering they’ve averaged 76.5% over the course of the campaign.

Similarly, their share of possession has been just 34% and 36% in those two matches. Di Canio won’t be too concerned about that, seemingly willing for his players to concede possession as a consequence of their attempt to break directly. A good number of Sunderland’s passes are played forward – although almost 50% of these are unsuccessful.

Sunderland aren’t actually creating many clear-cut goalscoring opportunities, but they’re not necessarily trying to. Under O’Neill, Sunderland seemed desperate to cross the ball towards Steven Fletcher waiting on the penalty spot - but the approach became predictable, and as opponents guarded against the wing play, Sunderland had few other options.

O’Neill also said he wanted more goals from long-range - Craig Gardner was one player accused of not scoring enough – but under Di Canio, Sunderland have relied upon long-distance shots. In the wins over Newcastle and Everton - in the absence of the injured Fletcher - there’s been an emphasis on shooting from outside the box, with all four goals hit from similar range.

It’s worked brilliantly so far, but Di Canio’s approach is unsustainable in the long run. Players can’t close down incessantly for 38 games a season, nor can they allow opponents to dominate matches every week. It’s also unlikely that Sunderland will continue thumping in so many shots from unlikely goalscoring positions.

Di Canio is the perfect man to give Sunderland a sudden shot in the arm, but probably not the man to build a dynasty at the club. In all, it’s exactly as you’d have guessed from his fiery personality.

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