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The international break has been timely for Sunderland, not only because it arrives after the first defeat of the season, but because of the way the team has played under Martin O'Neill. High energy, industrious, some on Wearside consider it overly cautious. The simple fact is a lot goes into the performance and - Steven Fletcher's goals aside - precious little output has been produced thus far this season. So a week without Premier League football provides a chance to reflect, before the all-important next game. Cliché? Not this time. Newcastle United is the next name on the fixture list.
O'Neill has regularly bemoaned Sunderland's squad size, but now faces the same broadsides that attempted to sink his ship at Aston Villa - not only is that he is reluctant to make full use of what he has at his disposal, but that in doing so the team suffers, particularly as the season draws to a close. It was something that he openly discussed towards the end of last season -in which he used a total of 25 players in the league - but lead to fleeting starts for Connor Wickham and Ji Dong-Won before both returned to the subs bench. David Meyler featured prominently in a 1-0 win over Stoke at the Britannia Stadium in February. It was his first and only start of the season. One might argue that those examples are selective; injuries hung over both Wickham and Meyler at key stages of their development whilst Ji sought to adapt to a new climate and culture. Yet during this time Seb Larsson soldiered on with what became a double hernia.
O'Neill's quandary is that he says one thing and means another; Sunderland's squad is of a decent size, but its quality is not of a sufficient calibre. Which leads us to the next Midland prophecy - that the manager will spend and spend until he has no more. And then walk. The retort on Wearside was emphatic; the summer saw O'Neill attract players capable of cementing Sunderland as a top-half side - the ideal of Chairman Ellis Short. With key players out of form the manager has been unwilling to use those in reserve. Without opportunity, who knows what is to become of Ji, who has eight goals at senior international level for South Korea already, or even whether Louis Saha can be an adequate partner/replacement for Steven Fletcher whilst the younger attacking alternatives are nurtured away from the first team.
The potential addition of James McFadden may enhance his options, the decision to pick a central midfielder, creating an either/or scenario between Larsson, Johnson and James McClean on either wing may too - especially when Johnson has still to return to full fitness, and McClean, form. The omission of a genuine game-changing option on the bench suffocated Sunderland last season, so much so that once a third barren spell in as many years occurred they were unable to shake it; meekly finishing a season that O'Neill's arrival had rekindled so remarkably. The irony is that now O'Neill has that, through adding to the squad, the preference to use all of his forward-thinking midfield players at once has left Sunderland woefully short of options should events not go according to plan - which unfortunately has been the case thus far.
As Fletcher and others set off on football-for-their-country jaunts, O'Neill is mindful that his side are yet to find their stride. The break in domestic action may just be the reprieve that Stephane Sessegnon needs to re-gather his brilliance, whilst there will be those anxious that Johnson and Fletcher return unscathed, and that McClean can overcome the strain that has prevented him from linking up with the Republic of Ireland in time for October 20. The beauty of O'Neill's Sunderland team so far is that, largely, fans know what is coming, and what can be expected - much like when Roy Keane used to say ‘expect some changes' and Dwight Yorke would find himself back in the first team. The trouble is the opposition know too. Given what is on the horizon O'Neill must hope that Sunderland's creative players can find their form.