Before February, Sunderland under Martin O'Neil were chugging along at a respectable if not great 1.16ppg. Then the wheels feel off and the team went 7 games winless. Di Canio was brought on and achieved 1.14ppg over the last 7. Was bringing Di Canio really what saved the team, or was this more a circumstance where the team was a bit bad and unlucky and then just regressed to their true talent level at the end? How much of an upgrade do you think Di Canio will be this season?
I was absolutely desperate for Martin O'Neill to succeed at Sunderland, but there is absolutely no question in my mind that it was Di Canio's galvanising effect that essentially salvaged our Premier League status. O'Neill had build a dour team, who dug in at the back, crept out sporadically and tentatively, and bored the pants out of just about everyone. You could say that O'Neill was unlucky to lose Steven Fletcher to injury, and given he was crocked on International duty there is something in that. That said, he had plenty of opportunity to provide better cover. A creaking Louis Saha was signed and shown the door inside six months, a big outlay was made on an unfit and lumbering Danny Graham in January, and Ji Dong-won was out on loan at Augsburg impressing just about the entire Bundesliga. O'Neill left when we were teetering above the relegation zone and it wasn't a false position by any means.
As far as Di Canio is concerned, I personally don't think he received enough credit for what he did at Sunderland last season. He had seven games to play - three away at top six clubs, and the rest against relegation rivals. There were no midtable teams who were already on the beach to cash-in on. His captain and top scorer were injured, his most creative player suspended for half of it, and just one senior striker to call upon.
His colourful persona made an impact, of course, but there were definitely signs of him putting his own stamp on the side at the back end of the season They were tighter tactically and stronger mentally. Realistically it was all he could do. He is a man with everything to prove but the preseason signs have been good. From what little we saw of him I think he will be a big upgrade, although the revamp of the club's recruitment department - Di Canio expressed types of players he wants to the new Director of Football but doesn't really identify specific targets - may have just as big an effect. I am more optimistic going into a season than I can remember being in a long time but, then again, who isn't at this time of year?
Being an American, I'm very curious about how Jozy Altidore is going to do at the club. His first time in the Premier League wasn't great, but being a teenager on a bad team probably wasn't the best situation for him. He's been scoring tons of goals for both club and country recently, so I think he has the talent to succeed. One thing about his game though is how much he needs quality service to do well. Both for AZ and his good run with the USMNT he's been up top alone in either a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. Di Canio seems to favor using a pretty basic 4-4-2. How do you see Jozy fitting in with the squad in that formation?
All summer long Di Canio has been using a 4-2-3-1 system with Altidore at its apex, so he shouldn't find it too hard to settle in. The three behind him have been made up of Stephane Sessegnon centrally flanked by Adam Johnson and Emanuele Giaccherini playing as inverted wingers, so there is no dearth of creativity there. That said, if Altidore thrives on crosses then the club have more work to do to bring the best from him. It is the full backs who provide them in Di Canio's system and that is looking an especially weak area at the moment.
There are also questions over the future of Sessegnon, and it wouldn't surprise me at all to see him leave the club before the transfer window closes. Should that happen, Altidore's role becomes less easy to predict. I wouldn't really expect too much to change, however. Sessegnon would be replaced, likely like-for-like, and Steven Fletcher is a versatile forward who could drop into the deeper role. It is true that we've been expecting a more rigid kind of 4-4-2 from Di Canio at some point, but it would be fair to say there has been very little evidence of one materialising so far.
Di Canio has brought in by my count 10 new players including two central defenders and a new goal keeper. Are there any worries that the team is going to take some time to jell and struggle out of the gate?
I think it is always a worry. Pick up just about any newspaper at the moment and you'll see pundits and journalists tipping Sunderland for the drop. The logic seems a little iffy, though. At the moment they seem to think Sunderland are getting relegated because QPR bought a lot of new players last year.
But I think that what has been overlooked by many is that, whilst it is a risk to change so much in a summer, it would have been a far greater gamble to stick more closely with what we had. The squad that finished last season was devoid of any real dynamism and technical ability and instead made up of willing one-paced plodding triers. I feel like I used this phrase almost on a weekly basis over the last year, but it was a squad of squad players.
All we can really do is trust Di Canio, and he has gone to great lengths to integrate the new players into the squad this summer with triple training sessions and prolonged foreign jaunts, so hopefully they will be further along the process of gelling together than you'd maybe expect. Ultimately, who knows. Sunderland are almost as big a mystery this summer to us as they are to everyone else. I have to say, though, I'd take my chances with the new players over last season's squad any day of the week.
Projected Lineup at time of writing: (4-2-3-1) Westwood; Celustka, Brown, O'Shea, Colback; Cabral, Larsson; Johnson, Sessegnon, Giaccherini; Altidore
Players to watch: Emanuele Giaccherini has really looked the part this summer and shown the kind of class you'd expect from a double Scudetto-winning full Italian international around his peak. Keiren Westwood will surprise a few people as well I suspect of he can fight off the challenge of Vito Mannone, and Cabral is one of the least-heralded summer arrivals but possibly the most astute.
Be sure to head over to Roker Report to read my answers to the questions from them.