Paolo Di Canio began the weekend jostling with unruly Southampton fans – and ended it wrestling with a familiar red-and-white dilemma.
The surge of intrigue that followed reports of a “brawl” at Sunderland’s team hotel on Friday night soon fizzled out as Di Canio patiently explained how a potential flashpoint with drunken wedding guests was doused in a few minutes by summoning the local constabulary.
If only the Black Cats boss could summon the authorities to solve the Stephane Sessegnon conundrum.
Sunderland’s most persistently perplexing player has started two Premier League games this season, and failed to display any semblance of influence on either occasion.
It just goes to show that for all the change that Di Canio has visited on the club this summer, some things remain doggedly resistant to revolution.
With a week left of a transfer window that has seen unprecedented movement at the Stadium of Light, the time is fast approaching for Di Canio to make arguably the biggest call of the lot: namely, whether Sessegnon is worth persevering with.
It is a bit late in the day for Sunderland to be spinning this particular plate, but so much depends on it.
Dispense with him and his wages and it opens up possibilities for Di Canio – while also deepening their creativity gap.
Retain him and Sunderland will have a proven match-winner in their ranks until January at least. But the kicker is that he has to supply more than he is currently delivering.
On Saturday, Di Canio had made the decision within 45 minutes. The “system” – that philosophy that Di Canio is confident will bring long-term rewards to the Black Cats – was whirring along nicely, but the ineffectual Sessegnon looked like the odd man, a relic from the Martin O’Neill era if you will. It followed a pattern. Sessegnon has played more than 100 minutes of football and registered a single shot which, given Di Canio’s determination for his team to push forward with more conviction, is pretty poor.
Is it a problem of system or Sessegnon himself? That debate seems to have followed the player ever since he hopped over the Channel to join Sunderland from Paris Saint-Germain.
On Saturday, it didn’t look good for him. For a man who can lift Sunderland from functional to free-wheeling to barely cause a frisson of excitement was unacceptable.
A frustrated Di Canio acted swiftly. “He wasn’t injured – he didn’t satisfy me,” the Sunderland boss confirmed afterwards.
“Ji, when he came on, did better. With his energy and attacking the space, he got a chance straight away. He made plenty of movement and that’s what we needed, a bit more pressure to the opponents.” Di Canio’s praise for Ji Dong-Won hinted at further game time for him this season. It also seemed to fly in the face of a display which appeared to most observers – this correspondent included – equally as ineffectual as Sessegnon’s.
Therein lies the rub for Di Canio’s revolution. For all that Sunderland look a much better proposition than they did 12 months ago, they still resemble a work-in-progress, and you suspect that will continue to be the case as long as Di Canio fails to lance the creativity boil that has irritated him all summer.
On this front, it is not just Sessegnon’s form that troubles. Di Canio is experimenting with his midfield mix, and Cabral was left out at St Mary’s.
The results were mixed. For 45 minutes it was working but when Jack Colback departed hurt, David Vaughan’s introduction unsettled things.
Sunderland could barely get a grip on the game and the absence of Cabral mutated into an issue for Di Canio to answer. “We needed a more aggressive player in the middle,” he explained. “They have five players, two full-backs who push forward and three in the middle, they keep the ball well. With Cabral – this is not a criticism – he’s not an aggressive guy, he’s not nasty in the middle.
“My wingers are very good on the ball, they work so hard, but they are not aggressive. For me it was better to have Seb and Craig in the middle, try to press, work so hard, otherwise we’d have had problems.”
These issues notwithstanding, Di Canio can draw some encouragement from Sunderland’s trip to the South Coast.
For a start, they were a minute away from taking three points – which is not something many teams will do at Southampton this season.
They look good: full of incisive, attacking intent and with players capable of causing real problems.
It was Sunderland who opened the scoring, however. Emanuele Giaccherini was the implausible scorer of an early header, connecting with Seb Larsson’s corner to nod the visitors into an early lead.
Had he been a bit more clinical, Jozy Altidore might have made it two and Sunderland were dangerous on the counter. Their wingers give them a real cutting edge and Adam Johnson has been transformed by Di Canio’s summer fitness drive.
Southampton edged back into the game, with Keiren Westwood called into action on several occasions. After a second half spent mainly holding out, Jose Fonte headed Southampton a deserved leveller. Di Canio was philosophical.
He said: “It’s not easy for the new guys. Giaccherini came from Juventus, they have the ball for 80-90% of the time. Now they have to work off the ball. It will take time.”