It is mighty early to be talking about a must-win game but for Paolo Di Canio, Saturday just about qualifies.
It is not that Sunderland’s position will be perilous if they lose at The Hawthorns – there is still a plethora of points to play for – but it is does continue the creeping doubt about his methods and mentality. Here are the five areas he desperately needs to address in the next five days.
MOUNTING A CASE FOR THE DEFENCE - SOON
Scratch beneath the superficial surface and the root cause of Sunderland’s laborious start is not Di Canio’s reckless tongue or a recruitment drive that has tried to do too much, too soon. The awkward truth for a manager who has spent the summer painstakingly working on shape is that it is his porous back four that has looked exposed at key moments and shipped goals consistently.
That is a major problem for Di Canio, who was provided with two central defensive signings in the summer with no previous Premier League experience. To be brutally honest that showed on Saturday as Mo Diakite, clearly a player of quality, suffered for the struggles of Valentin Roberge.
The cherished Di Canio “system” they have been deployed might have been assembled by an Italian but it is anything but true to the footballing principles of that nation.
Di Canio is actually an attacking manager, encouraging full-backs to push up in support of attacks while his defenders are instructed to bring the ball out from the back whenever possible.
It is key to the Sunderland manager’s philosophy but it has undeniably made them vulnerable.
The issue of experience is another that Di Canio needs to confront.
Former Maritimo defender Roberge is another physically strong defender, but like Diakite has barely played in recent seasons. Groping for a way back into regular football is hardly the soundest footing for a player getting to grips with a new style of football and it has showed in starts so far.
Di Canio needs John O’Shea to justify his billing as his leader and to find a way to encourage the fragile Wes Brown to play as many games as possible. If not, Carlos Cuellar should come back into his thinking. For all that the former Aston Villa man can be error-prone, he has the Premier League experience Di Canio’s team craves.
Di Canio was incredulous when asked whether his outspoken pubic proclamations might be harming his red and white revolution last week. “If 500 million people see a mistake like John (O’Shea’s), how can I ignore it,” he asked.
Football doesn’t like honesty much. There was a debate on Sky’s Monday Night Football that centred around David Moyes condemning Ashley Young for diving that essentially amounted to whether the Manchester United manager should have tactically ignored the theatrical tendencies of his winger in spite of the overwhelming evidence. That’s football, unfortunately: a world where you have to divine meanings from behind-the-scenes briefings because 90% of the game’s main protagonists walk on eggshells.
The Cabral question was tackled head-on and put to bed immediately. The word from the dressing room is that most of the players aren’t particularly bothered about what has been said anyway, they just want to start winning games.
RE-INTEGRATE CABRAL AND CATTERMOLE
Having backed Di Canio for his outspoken views, it seems strange to then implore him to find a way to get these two midfielders back into the picture. But being honest is completely different from being deliberately bloodyminded, and Sunderland will be so much stronger if Cabral and Lee Cattermole are involved.
Obviously neither are Di Canio’s ideal of a professional footballer but this is where the Italian needs to show elements of compromise. He is right to demand more from Cattermole, who was turning into a parody of himself at times over the last couple of seasons, but it is worth remembering that the club captain is yet to actually pull on a red-andwhite shirt for him yet.
Anyone who saw him outplay Yaya Toure when Sunderland beat Manchester City in December 2011 will confirm that he really can play – and judging by the way the midfield has misfired so far this season they need him.
The other bonus of recalling Cattermole is that it might offer the defence a bit of protection. Ditto Cabral, who has been given only one chance in the Premier League under Di Canio. Di Canio says he needs to “understand”, but he’s barely been examined yet. It is far too early to be jumping to conclusions.
THE DRESSING-ROOM DYNAMIC IS KEY
When results start to drift away, the dressing room dynamic is key. With so many new players Di Canio needed results to weld them together, for nothing encourages bonding like big wins. With defeats, the tendency to retreat into their shells is a worry.
The Italian already admits communication is a problem and it is noticeable that many of the newcomers continue to plead a lack of English when asked to speak publicly about Sunderland. Di Canio has hailed Ki as a critical part of his plan and the midfielder needs to act like it off the pitch too.
The new players must step up as soon as possible – on and off the field.
KEEP ALTIDORE’S HEAD UP
Jozy Altidore was Di Canio’s big transfer gamble in the summer and there might have been an element of self-justification when he described the striker as the “perfect footballer” before the start of the season.
So far, the jury is out. For while Altidore is yet to score in the Premier League that tells only half the story. The American has actually been pretty impressive in his first few games.
He has hit the frame of the goal, seen a strike disallowed in farcical circumstances and been denied by inspired goal-keeping. wIt is a hard-luck story that can’t be allowed to prey on Altidore’s mind. With strikers, form and belief is vitally important.
When Steven Fletcher signed, the millstone of his sizeable transfer fee was soon buried by his prolific record but it might have been different if Martin Atkinson had been present at Swansea to make an inexplicable call when he marked his debut with a goal. Ditto Danny Graham, whose miserable spell on Wearside was defined by his long wait for a strike.
Altidore cannot be allowed to fall into that same vortex.