Sunderland’s decision to sack manager Steve Bruce and appoint Martin O’Neill has dramatically changed their season. When O’Neill took charge of his first game against Blackburn on 11th December Sunderland found themselves in 17th position in the league with 11 points from 14 games. Following Saturday’s victory over Swansea the club sits in 10th place with 27 points, having accumulated 16 points from just 8 games under their new manager.
Under Bruce, Sunderland averaged just 0.79 points per game, scoring 1.14 and conceding 1.21 goals per game in the process. Under O’Neill the team has seen a huge improvement to an average of 2 points per game, scoring more (1.63) and conceding fewer (0.88). This record is all the more impressive given that O’Neill’s brief tenure has included away fixtures at Tottenham and Chelsea and a home game against league leaders Man City. Had Sunderland demonstrated this form from the beginning of the season they would be currently sitting in 4th place.
So how has O’Neill brought about this change in fortune?
Martin O’Neill has had the same squad at his disposal, and has largely used the same players and the same formation. The table below shows the players that have started in the league for Sunderland under both O’Neill and Steve Bruce. Ten players have started at least half of the games under both managers, with four starting at least 75%. However, two players in particular have been used much more frequently under O’Neill. David Vaughan mostly warmed the bench for Bruce but has since started every game, while James McClean has gone from playing in the reserves to becoming an active member of the first team.
One point that does come across is the consistency of selection under O’Neill. Nine players have started at least 75% of the games, compared to only five players under Bruce. In fact three players have started every game for O’Neill and, but for injuries to Simon Mignolet, Wes Brown, Kieran Richardson, Sebastian Larsson and Nicklas Bendtner, that figure could easily be eight. This also suggests that, rather than O’Neill being luckier with player availability, he has simply identified his favoured players much more quickly than Bruce.
While the personnel may not have changed dramatically, Martin O’Neill has certainly altered the way Sunderland play. Steve Bruce favoured a more patient approach, leading to shorter passing and plenty of square-balls across the midfield and defensive line. Under O’Neill Sunderland have looked to play much more directly, with lots of long-balls down the flanks and into the forwards.
The Guardian Chalkboards below demonstrate Sunderland’s contrasting passing patterns under the two managers. The games away to Norwich and home to Fulham, both under Bruce’s management, show a great deal of short passing across the centre of the pitch.
(Under Steve Bruce – high volume of short passing in the midfield area)
Following O’Neill’s appointment, Sunderland’s passing is very different in games away to QPR and at home to Everton. The clusters of passing in the midfield has been replaced with longer passes from defence.
(Under Martin O’Neill – majority of passes bypass the midfield)
This change in passing is further reflected by Sunderland’s passing success under the two managers. In the fourteen games prior to O’Neill’s appointment the team had a passing success of 76%. In the eight games since their success rate has dropped to 70%.
Sunderland’s direct approach has resulted in a drop in their share of possession. In the eight games under Martin O’Neill, Sunderland have only had the majority of the ball once, against Blackburn in his first game in charge, and average 42.3% possession overall. Whether there is a conscious intention to cede possession to their opponents and adopt a counter-attacking style is unclear, but certainly a pattern is evident. Under Steve Bruce Sunderland averaged 46.6% possession, which may not seem to be a considerable difference. However they had at least 50% possession in seven of fourteen games, winning only once and losing three times.
This may have influenced O’Neill’s plans, as clearly attempting to dominate possession was not working. Wigan are one of the few teams that both Bruce and O’Neill have faced this season, and the statistics are interesting. Under Steve Bruce Sunderland had 53% possession and lost 2-1. Under Martin O’Neill Sunderland had only 37% possession and won 4-1.
Sunderland’s ceding of possession has led to another feature under Martin O’Neill, that of defensive depth. While Steve Bruce hardly played an aggressive press, he did attempt to play a much higher line and looked to win the ball further up the field. Since O’Neill has taken over, Sunderland’s defence has dropped much deeper and they have largely looked to drop back into their own half before attempting to win the ball back.
The Guardian Chalkboards below show the tackles attempted in two games under Bruce and two under O’Neill. In the games under Bruce, at home to Fulham and Wigan, Sunderland attempt as many tackles in the opposition’s half as their own.
(Under Steve Bruce – tackles are attempted all over the pitch)
With Martin O’Neill the majority of tackle attempts occur in Sunderland’s half of the pitch.
(Under Martin O’Neill – tackles are largely consigned to their own half)
Using the Wigan game again as a direct comparison it becomes clear how much deeper Sunderland played. Looking at the players’ average position using ESPN’s Soccernet GameCast you can see how Sunderland’s central defenders attempted to push up towards the halfway line under Bruce, whereas for O’Neill they remained on the edge of their own penalty area.
(Under Steve Bruce – only 4 players’ average position is in Sunderland’s half)
(Under Martin O’Neill – in a complete transformation, only 4 players’ average position is in the opponent’s half)
It seems that Martin O’Neill has prioritised making Sunderland difficult to beat, by dropping deeper and playing more directly, but in doing so has actually got them scoring more goals and winning more games.
The balance of the team appears to be better. James McClean has provided natural width on the left to compliment Sebastian Larsson on the other flank. Behind them Phil Bardsley has been moved to his preferred position of right-back with Kieran Richardson taking the left-back spot, resulting in two left-footed players on the left and two right-footed players on the right.
This has also allowed Stephane Sessegnon, arguably Sunderland’s best player this season, the freedom to play centrally and link the midfield to Nicklas Bendtner up front. He seems to have revelled in the role, with three goals and three assists in the eight games under O’Neill compared to two goals and three assists in fourteen games under Steve Bruce.
At the back the likes of Wes Brown and John O’Shea have benefitted from a deeper line and consistent selection, while ahead of them both Lee Cattermole and David Vaughan combine energy and ability on the ball. It is unsurprising that Vaughan has featured so heavily for O’Neill in this system given that direct passing to the flanks was a large part of Blackpool’s style last season.
Time will tell if O’Neill’s initial changes turn into long-term plans. Either way, it has been an excellent start, and the club now have an outside chance of qualifying for Europe. It will be interesting to see how the Sunderland board back O’Neill in the transfer market, seeing as a lack of funds reportedly caused him to walk out on Villa.