HOW many injuries does it take to cause a crisis? At Sunderland right now, three will do it.
The Black Cats only have two specialist full-backs in their squad, so Sod’s Law dictated Danny Rose and Phil Bardsley would both be injured for Saturday’s trip to the side topping the Premier League. Not any old league leaders either – Manchester United, with their tradition for playing with wingers, on an Old Trafford pitch wide enough to make full use of them.
Add Lee Cattermole’s knee injury, and suddenly Martin O’Neill had very little room to manoeuvre.
“Danny Rose failed a test in the morning and may well not have been fit for a couple of days but he wanted to make it,” he explained. “Phil Bardsley is out.
“So we didn’t have that many options.
“We wanted to try and get midfield players as best as possible playing midfield, so Craig Gardner moved from right-back where he played on Tuesday night (for much of the game against Reading) and into midfield. Carlos Cuellar, who played for me at Aston Villa at right-back, moved over.”
Little wonder that with a centre-back at right-back and central midfielder Jack Colback at left-back, the Red Devils had a field day, one player O’Neill signed for Aston Villa – Ashley Young – in particular enjoying running at another, in Cuellar.
The versatility of players like Cuellar, Colback, Gardner and Sebastian Larsson has helped O’Neill keep to the kind of tight squad he prefers, but in Manchester the lack of numbers backed him into a corner.
This has been a season of square pegs in round holes at Sunderland. If you want to know how it has gone, look at a league table. Without Cattermole’s bite, Gardner more or less had to play in midfield.
The only alternative was pairing David Vaughan – cultured, but hardly a fiercesome ball-winner – alongside Larsson in the heart of the engine room.
That Vaughan has not started a Premier League game all season, while right-winger Larsson has kicked off 11 games in the middle, should tell you what O’Neill thinks of that prospect.
To operate with a small squad, you have to trust them all. That is patently not the case with O’Neill. He must take a large dollop of blame.
O’Neill must have known his squad was too thin, and certainly does now after pointing out the length of the two squad lists on the back of the programme.
He was given £22m in the summer – probably less than he wanted, but significant nonetheless – and opted for quality, not quantity. It has backfired. Hopefully O’Neill rectifies it in the next January transfer window with more effective dealing than in the last.
All things considered, the point was made relatively painlessly.
Sunderland lost, 3-1, but that was hardly unexpected. The way they battled to the end prevented any psychological damage, and Rose may return for Saturday’s more winnable game at Southampton.
For 25 minutes, it looked like the feelgood factor garnered beating Reading days earlier would be brutally beaten out of the Black Cats.
When they last visited Old Trafford, a former Manchester United defender came bearing a gift for Sir Alex Ferguson’s 25th anniversary.
For Wes Brown’s own goal then, read John O’Shea’s bungled clearance which gift-wrapped a chance Robin van Persie snatched.
But United were nothing like as ruthless as they were rampant. Simon Mignolet had already tipped over from Young, while Patrice Evra, unmarked at the back of the area for a corner, ballooned a good chance.
Mignolet saved again from van Persie before Adam Johnson and Cuellar watched Tom Cleverley round off a one-two with his third Red Devils goal. The others came against Newcastle United. Wayne Rooney ought to have had a hat-trick – missing two first-half sitters, then hitting the bar – before van Persie squeezed between Titus Bramble and Cuellar to set up his 59th-minute tap-in.
Even before that Sunderland had started causing problems to David de Gea, who saved well from James McClean, Stéphane Sessègnon, Gardner and Connor Wickham.
Three-nil ahead, the Reds lost all devilment, taking off Rio Ferdinand so Nemanja Vidic could have a bit of match-practice.
Fraizer Campbell took advantage, heading in Sessègnon’s 72nd-minute cross for his first goal since February 1. With only eight starts since, he is another O’Neill seems lukewarm towards.
Hopefully Campbell can now win him over as Wickham’s second-half performance at Norwich City – well followed-up here – seems to have. With Steven Fletcher forced off at half-time with a back injury, he might be needed over Christmas.
The fightback further encouraged fans who share owner Ellis Short’s belief that in O’Neill (pictured left), Sunderland have the right man for the job. Numerous renditions of the Ulsterman’s name were followed in added-time by “Don’t worry about a thing”.
O’Neill has earned that trust, but needs to start repaying some of it. A few transfer window presents could go a long way.