O'Neill left with plenty to ponder (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
Sunderland's faltering pre-season campaign continued yesterday as they sank to a 2-0 defeat to Swedish champions Helsingborgs.
The game saw the Black Cats once again draw a frustrating blank in front of goal, and left Martin O'Neill with plenty to ponder with the start of the Premier League season less than two weeks away.
We have been pondering too...
What The Gaffer Said
Rather than frustration, it was pragmatism that dominated Martin O'Neill's post-match comments on safc.com.
Again, we're working towards the start of the season and in terms of fitness it was a good work-out. We were playing against a side who have played a lot of matches and now we've got others coming up to get our fitness to a peak ahead of Arsenal.
We are disappointed, of course, with losing the two goals but there are plenty of things to ponder.
They [the returning players involved in summer internationals] have done very little training, and the concern of course was that they would play this game and maybe pull a hamstring or something like that through fatigue.
But they each got a work-out which was fine for them and I am just pleased they are back in the fold.
I'm expecting us to really step up for the two games we have left. By the end of the Leicester game, you would like the players you think are going to be involved against Arsenal to have had as much time on the field in the two games as possible.
So once again the focus was on fitness rather than anything else, although there was a hint of the patience just starting to run out a little in the final point. It is also clear that the next two pre-season games will give us a big clue about what, and who, we can expect to see on the opening day of the season.
Preseason Tactical Consistency
For all it can be tough to read too much into games at this time of year, there has been some genuine tactical consistency in the selections. For each friendly so far except possibly Hartlepool, O'Neill has started with a 4-3-3/4-5-1 system.
Obviously, the fact that the squad is hardly brimming over with strikers meaning there isn't a huge amount of choice in the matter for O'Neill is the point that is dominating the summer, but with three strikers available the option to play a more rigid and standard 4-4-2 has always been there.
Even with striker reinforcements sure to arrive it is not the be all and end all at the football club. O'Neill still has to prepare a squad for a season of football and that will include training ground tactical drills which will also need putting into practice on the pitch, so this far into pre-season it becomes ever increasingly difficult to discount what we are seeing in terms of the shape of the team.
Lack Of Goals Is Not New Information
After a third blank in front of goal in four friendly games, it is inevitable that the focus is going to be on the continued efforts to find some cutting edge in the transfer market.
But even if we had scored a hat full of goals in Sweden it wouldn't have actually changed anything. We know what we need over the next month and Martin O'Neill knows it better than any of us.
Frustrating, certainly, but as long as the clear message coming from the club remains that they recognise the issue we can keep our fingers off the panic button.
The First Day Of The Rest Of McClean's Life?
Towards the end of last season, O'Neill said how he'd like to start using James McClean more on the right wing instead of the left. You never quite know which sound bites to believe in football these days, but O'Neill delivered on this one by using the former Derry man down the right in the second half.
It is quite astounding that having spent so long searching for that elusive natural left winger, shortly after we find him we plonk him on the opposite side of the pitch.
Nevertheless, it perhaps gives us a further little insight to O'Neill's plans for next season. If he wanted a natural touchline hugging winger, then he would not be moving McClean. It seems that inside forwards are the order of the day, and with no apparent plans to switch Larsson similarly, you start to wonder whether we can expect to see a right-footed left-winger perhaps in the Aiden McGeady mold arrive before the month is out.