Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Di Canio turns up the contrast at Sunderland

In appointing Paolo Di Canio as Sunderland manager, owner Ellis Short not only fell victim to the “Contrast Theory” but has actively embraced it. 

The theory is simple, and has its origins in time immemorial.  When replacing an underperforming manager, simply make your next selection his polar opposite: freewheelers replace tacticians.  Teachers replace “player’s coaches”; experience dismissed for youth that presages change e’er longed-for.

This contrast doesn’t get much more pronounced than this week’s changeover at the helm of the Black Cats.  Martin O’Neill – dear, staid, true, predictable and downtrodden Martin O’Neill – is gone, replaced by the fiery Di Canio.  For much of the season the Mackems have appeared short of ideas: O’Neill has been chief among the bewildered as his tried-and-tested methods shuffled his emotionless team towards relegation.

After an initial dead-cat bounce, the old coaching methods that O’Neill had employed with success over two decades with Wycombe, Leicester City, Celtic and Aston Villa proved ineffectual at Sunderland.  As his men became almost entirely inoffensive, O’Neill appeared a forlorn man adhering to tactics well past their sell-by date: defenders stop the ball, forwards shoot it and midfielders move the ball between the two as efficiently as possible. 

This theory still holds water – just, and if you squint – but, in practicality, is often exposed by the more fluid systems now en vogue throughout the EPL.

Di Canio is everything that Martin O’Neill was not.  He favours a remarkably fit team of young, hungry players.  Although he often played 4-4-2 at Swindon Town, he enjoyed the most success after shifting to an unorthodox formation.  He is flexible, young and hungry: three traits which hardly described O’Neill’s Wearside tenure.

He is also unflinchingly controversial, although references to his political beliefs may be somewhat overstated.

However, whether Di Canio’s furious affect will work in the Premiership is still up for debate - the spectacular fallout from another talent of the nineties, Paul Ince, after moving from League One to the top flight ended amidst a flurry of self-styled “Guv’nor” tactics which endeared him to neither his players, nor his employers.

Ellis Short has gambled that a controversial extrovert will be more effective in dodging relegation than persevering with a man who patently enjoyed only middling success.  O’Neill was an appointment tailored specifically to the situation in which Sunderland found themselves seventeen months past; Di Canio is a man chosen directly to address this predicament with this playing group.  How that dressing-shed cadre responds is now, quite literally, the £64 million question.

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