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 vintageÃ¢ÂÂ¦
Paolo Di CanioÃ¢ÂÂs short stint at Sunderland has followed the expected pattern: controversy, knee-slides and plenty of extravagant hand gestures on the touchline.
And then thereÃ¢ÂÂs the results Ã¢ÂÂ 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 SunderlandÃ¢ÂÂs form over the course of 2012/13.
ThereÃ¢ÂÂs something rather clichÃÂ©d about Di CanioÃ¢ÂÂs tactical instructions so far. Sunderland donÃ¢ÂÂt appear significantly better organised than under Martin OÃ¢ÂÂNeill, nor has Di Canio made any obvious tactical tweaks between games to exploit weaknesses in opponents. Instead, SunderlandÃ¢ÂÂs game has been about energy and commitment Ã¢ÂÂ theyÃ¢ÂÂre hardly playing great football, but the level of motivation has certainly improved.
Di CanioÃ¢ÂÂs first game was at Stamford Bridge Ã¢ÂÂ where he famously scored a long-range effort as West Ham battled relegation ten seasons ago. From the first whistle, his instructions were clear Ã¢ÂÂ 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 Ã¢ÂÂ see the positions of their tackles Ã¢ÂÂ as Sunderland eventually lost 2-1.
Nevertheless, a debut defeat at Stamford Bridge wasnÃ¢ÂÂt a disaster, and while Sunderland rode their luck in the 3-0 derby victory over Newcastle in Di CanioÃ¢ÂÂs next game, they continued with the same feisty approach.
The major difference from Martin OÃ¢ÂÂNeillÃ¢ÂÂs reign is SunderlandÃ¢ÂÂs attitude without the ball Ã¢ÂÂ under the Ulsterman, they sat incredibly deep and allowed the opposition to dictate the play. TheyÃ¢ÂÂre still not dominating possession, but opponents arenÃ¢ÂÂt allowed such time on the ball. Compare the number of interceptions from the Newcastle game, with one of OÃ¢ÂÂNeillÃ¢ÂÂs final away matches, at QPR.
With the ball, Sunderland havenÃ¢ÂÂt been playing slick passing football Ã¢ÂÂ but thereÃ¢ÂÂs 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, thereÃ¢ÂÂs almost a hint of Marcelo BielsaÃ¢ÂÂs Athletic Bilbao in the way Sunderland have been attacking.
The Black CatsÃ¢ÂÂ pass completion rate has been extremely low in their victories over Newcastle and Everton, at 64% and 67% respectively, a poor figure considering theyÃ¢ÂÂve 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 wonÃ¢ÂÂt 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 SunderlandÃ¢ÂÂs passes are played forward Ã¢ÂÂ although almost 50% of these are unsuccessful.
Sunderland arenÃ¢ÂÂt actually creating many clear-cut goalscoring opportunities, but theyÃ¢ÂÂre not necessarily trying to. Under OÃ¢ÂÂNeill, 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.
OÃ¢ÂÂNeill also said he wanted more goals from long-range - Craig Gardner was one player accused of not scoring enough Ã¢ÂÂ 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 - thereÃ¢ÂÂs been an emphasis on shooting from outside the box, with all four goals hit from similar range.
ItÃ¢ÂÂs worked brilliantly so far, but Di CanioÃ¢ÂÂs approach is unsustainable in the long run. Players canÃ¢ÂÂt close down incessantly for 38 games a season, nor can they allow opponents to dominate matches every week. ItÃ¢ÂÂs 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, itÃ¢ÂÂs exactly as youÃ¢ÂÂd have guessed from his fiery personality.
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