Dark days behind them at the Stadium of Light

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?

Team Selection

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.

Defensive Line

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.

How do Premier League clubs’ 2011 form compare to 2010?

The league season may be the obvious way to track a club’s success, but a calendar year might be a better method to track a club’s progress.  Many teams begin a league season with a host of new players who naturally take time to integrate with the squad and adapt to the team’s style of play. Usually in the early months of a season, managers will gradually incorporate new signings into their existing side. If we accept that by the halfway point in a league season, most clubs will have a settled team and system, it may be true to say that a team in January will have more in common in terms of unity and ability with the team that begins the next campaign than the one that started the current one.

Similarly managerial dismissals are more common in the first half of the season than in the second half. Of the current Premier League managers, nine were hired between August and December compared to only five between January and May. Managers tend to get closer to completing a calendar year than they do a league season, and a change in manager is arguably the biggest catalyst to a dramatic change in form. Therefore, judging a team’s average points-per-game over a calendar year rather than a league season should offer a better guide to their progress as a club, rather than simply their performance in a given competition.

The Statistics

The table below shows the current Premier League clubs’ average points-per-game (PPG) achieved in the league in the last two calendar years. The Change column represents the difference between a team’s ppg between 2010 and 2011, while the % Change column represents the percentage difference. A team with positive change will have improved in 2011 from the previous year, whereas a team with a negative change will have declined during the same period. The league is ordered by the points-per-game earned in 2011, and so reflects how the league would look over the calendar year.

Naturally the newly promoted sides, Norwich, Swansea and QPR, have no comparison with 2010, and to use their Championship performances would be flawed due to the obvious difference in quality between the divisions. Their points-per-game for 2011 is still listed, but it should be noted this is only based on roughly half of the games of the other teams, just as Newcastle and West Brom, newly promoted in 2010, played a smaller number of games in the previous year.

The ‘Big Six’

At the top of the division, the ‘Big Six’ have shown themselves to be superior to the rest of the league being the only clubs to average over 1.50ppg in 2011. This may seem obvious, but in 2010 Everton were averaging 1.61ppg, while Liverpool dropped to 1.44ppg. However Liverpool have progressed well under Kenny Dalglish and are the second most improved side in 2011, improving to an average of 1.80ppg.

The only team to improve by more than Liverpool were Man City, rising from 1.80ppg in 2010 to 2.17ppg in 2011. This reflects the excellent job Roberto Mancini has done, turning an expensively assembled squad into a coherent attacking outfit. Man City now sit alongside Man Utd (2.23ppg) as the only teams to earn over 2.00ppg in 2011, taking Chelsea’s place from 2010. Last season’s champions Man Utd have actually improved in 2011 which makes Man City’s position at the top of the table all the more impressive.

2011 reflects Chelsea’s decline, dropping from an average of 2.03ppg in 2010 to 1.87ppg in 2011 and making them the fourth worst performers in terms of their previous year’s results. Andre Villas Boas has struggled to rejuvenate an ageing and inflexible squad and will be watching his back if he fails to qualify for the Champions League, whatever the compensation may turn out to be.

The statistics also tell us that Tottenham are gaining more and Arsenal less points-per-game in 2011 than they were in 2010, but neither team has changed as much as some would have you believe. Tottenham’s increase of only 0.05ppg would suggest that consistency is still a problem over a calendar year, and that they would do well to maintain their excellent start to the season. Similarly Arsenal’s decrease of only 0.05ppg rubbishes talk of a team on the wane and reflects how well they have coped with the loss of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri.


There are nine Premier League clubs that average over 1.05ppg, which is the required average to achieve the accepted survival target of 40 points. Two of these clubs, Norwich and Swansea, are new to the division, yet their points-per-game averages of 1.16 and 1.05 respectively should keep them up if they are able to maintain their current form. Swansea in particular have shown remarkable composure on the ball for a newly promoted side, and their ability to calmly retain possession would surely give them an advantage should they be lured into the panic of a relegation dogfight.

Other members of the mid-table group have had mixed years. Everton’s decrease of 0.13ppg (8.3%) reflects the difficulty David Moyes has faced in the transfer market and his lack of firepower in front of goal. Despite still averaging a respectable 1.47ppg, they achieved the fifth largest decline in points-per-game from 2010 to 2011. The loss of Mikel Arteta seems to have taken a lot out of a side that has had to grow accustomed to losing key players every summer.

Meanwhile, Newcastle and West Brom have prospered under new managers and are the fourth and fifth most improved sides of 2011 respectively. The team that finished one place higher in third comes as a surprise, but Fulham improved by an impressive 0.32ppg (31.6%) in 2011. Considering Martin Jol’s slow start to the season, this statistic closer reflects Fulham’s poor 2010, when the Europa League led to a poor end to the 09/10 season and Mark Hughes struggled at the beginning of the 10/11 campaign. It also demonstrates how well Hughes performed once settled at his new club, and makes his decision to resign all the more puzzling.

Another club suffering from a poor end to a previous season are Stoke, who despite looking more efficient than ever have actually averaged 0.05ppg less in 2011 than in 2010, a 4% dip. Although this is hardly decisive, it may surprise some who believe the club are improving year-on-year. In contrast, it will surprise no-one to discover that Sunderland have averaged 0.21 fewer points-per-game in 2011 than in 2010, giving them the third largest decline (16.4%) in the calendar year. The club has seen a huge turnover of players over the last twelve months and it will be up to Martin O’Neill to bring some stability.

O’Neill’s previous club, Aston Villa, are the final club in the mid-table cluster of teams. Fans have been disappointed with the appointment of Alex McLeish, but Villa have had a marginally better 2011 than in 2010 when O’Neill was in charge for over half of the year. Considering how difficult Gerard Houllier found taking over at the start of the 10/11 season and the sale of Ashley Young and Stewart Downing in the summer, McLeish should get more credit with what he has done in the short space of time he has been at the club. Whether he has the style to appease the fans and help the club progress is another matter.

Relegation Strugglers

At the bottom of the league, five clubs have averaged less than 1.05 points-per-game which would result in them failing to achieve the survival benchmark of 40 points come the end of the season. The last few seasons have suggested that fewer points are now needed to stay in the league, and the statistics support this. Both Wolves and Wigan averaged less than 1.05ppg in 2010 and successfully survived. Wolves have slightly improved in 2011, but Wigan have not changed in the last twelve months. Roberto Martinez’s commitment to an attractive style of play may conceal the fact that Wigan have made no real progression in 2011.

QPR may currently lie above the relegation zone, but their form would suggest they may struggle over the season if they don’t start picking up more points. Their promotion was followed by Tony Fernandes taking over as chairman and promising sizable investment. QPR may have to repeat their late August transfer spree in January if they are to remain in the Premier League.

Finally, the two clubs at the bottom of the league are also the year’s worst performers. Blackburn have taken 0.56ppg (39.1%) less in 2011 than in 2010, while Bolton have declined by 0.44ppg (35.1%). Also, the fact that they are least successful teams over the calendar year as well as the current league season proves that both clubs have been struggling for some time, and that their current form cannot simply be put down to a slow start to the season. The pressure on both managers is well known and the statistics would suggest a change may be necessary to stay in the division.


So, a good year for Man City, Liverpool, Fulham, Newcastle and West Brom, and a poor year for Blackburn, Bolton, Sunderland, Chelsea and Everton. How will this affect their 2012 performances? Sunderland have already changed manager, and Steve Kean, Owen Coyle and Andre Villas Boas are certainly fighting to keep their jobs. Everton’s situation is different with their lack of investment, and David Moyes’ consistently good record means he is certainly under no pressure from the fans or the chairman. However, the club’s stagnation must be starting to frustrate Moyes, and I suspect this may be his last season at the club. Kenny Dalglish, Alan Pardew and Roy Hodgson all deserve great credit for an excellent 2011, and it will be interesting to see whether they can take their clubs even further in 2012. Martin Jol should get 2012 to really show what he can do with a decent Fulham side having shared the 2011 record with Mark Hughes. Finally, Roberto Mancini is surely the ‘Manager of the Year’, turning Man City into not only title contenders but a team capable of running away with the Premier League in 2012.