The right man
Nick Hext thinks Martin O'Neill is still the man for Sunderland but work is needed in the January transfer window
Last Updated: 10/12/12 3:17pm
Don't panic! That is the best bit of advice to give Sunderland fans after they watched their team slide into the Premier League relegation zone with a 3-1 defeat by Chelsea on Saturday.
Just two wins in 23 top-flight matches is a long way from acceptable for Martin O'Neill's men but it makes no sense to initiate change at the top when there is nothing better to come in and the potential to exaggerate the problems already in place. There are still plenty of reasons for fans of the Black Cats to feel frustrated, although there were not too many signs of mutiny from the terraces as Chelsea left for Japan with three points.
The defence was clearly warming up for Christmas during large portions of Saturday's game as they allowed Chelsea's array of attacking talent all the time in the world to wreak havoc. A side simply cannot allow top-notch opposition to strike either side of half-time and get something from a game. That is the most basic of lessons.
We all know that Sunderland have lacked end product during the campaign and the absence of Steven Fletcher, who has scored six of their 14 goals so far in the league, was clearly evident with Connor Wickham struggling at the head of the attack. The 19-year-old is known to be full of potential but what he needs now are games to finally give his fledging career further impetus.
Sadly, the bad news for the former Ipswich Town starlet is that a Premier League relegation fight is rarely the place to get such experience, although some may remember the impact Jon Stead had when arriving at Blackburn Rovers from Huddersfield Town in February 2004.
So what are the positives at the Stadium of Light? Adam Johnson finally showed some magic to give the Black Cats hope in the second half on Saturday and his clean strike past Petr Cech showed he is capable of providing moments that can turn a season. The winger has to live up to faith shown by O'Neill in splashing out around £10million to sign him from Manchester City in the summer and prove just why he was so desperate for a regular starting spot to push his England claims.
Tottenham Hotspur's on-loan Danny Rose was the main revelation as his hustle and bustle in central midfield proved just why Sunderland are so keen to extend his stay in the North East when we reach the January transfer window. Andre Villas-Boas will get positive reports back on Rose's progress but his options are so plentiful at Spurs that it does not make much sense to deny the England Under 21 international an extended spell at the Stadium of Light.
Simon Mignolet is a safe pair of hands in goal - and should only get better - while Sebastian Larsson, despite his stupid foul on Ramires to give Chelsea a penalty, and Stephane Sessegnon have proved they can impress. Fletcher and Lee Cattermole are the two names missing from the line-up against Chelsea who will make a difference but a little more is needed from O'Neill in January to give the club the best chance of fighting their way out of trouble.
A striker - maybe even two, if possible - have to be purchased when the window reopens and the simple commodity Sunderland need most is goals. That means all-round play has to be put on the back burner with the short-term aim to get someone who can have as big an impact on the Black Cats as Papiss Cisse managed at rivals Newcastle United and Pavel Pogrebnyak did at Fulham in the second half of last season. History has proved such players are out there and you would hope O'Neill is leaving no stone unturned in the chase to find that mystery goal-getter.
The defence also looks like it could do with a top up. Rose is clearly capable of having more of an impact from the centre of midfield and that means a left-back is needed. The poor performance of the backline against Chelsea also proved that greater mobility and strength is needed in the centre.
Gareth McAuley at West Bromwich Albion, Chico at Swansea City and Geoff Cameron at Stoke City prove that central defenders can be found from plenty of places in the football pyramid and without costing the earth. That is the task for O'Neill. To bolster his squad by learning the lessons from the end of the summer transfer window.
The late addition of Louis Saha on a free has not offered enough to the Black Cats so strike early and wisely with a little bit of clever scouting and a clear plan of what his squad needs. O'Neill remains the best man for the job and there is already enough quality from Johnson, Rose, Fletcher and others to suggest Sunderland can climb up to mid-table if the right moves are made.