Martin O’Neill has hardly achieved anything drastic this season. Indeed, Sunderland are currently 15th in the league – only six points above the relegation zone.
A poor run of form could see us dragged into a nervy battle at the end of the season. So should O’Neill have performed better so far? And where can the blame lie for the apparent lack of progress since Steve Bruce’s tenure?
The QPR result last weekend was a clear indication that we are not out of the woods yet and are by no means guaranteed Premier League football next season.
It is hard to put a finger on why this season hasn’t built on the initial run of good results O’Neill produced when he first took over last season.
On the face of it, some decent acquisitions have been made. Adam Johnson and Steven Fletcher are Premier League standard players and were expected to give a much-needed boost. Although Johnson has not played as well as we would have hoped, Fletcher has been doing well with his goal tally. I don’t think the blame can lie at the new players’ door.
I see this season as a transitional one. O’Neill has begun to put his stamp on the team, and was able to cut out many defensive frailties at the start of the season – we started the campaign by going unbeaten in the first six games.
However, the defence has become weaker of late, and rumours of clubs circling around Simon Mignolet are unlikely to help matters. I know many Sunderland fans are displeased with this season, some even suggesting a new manager should come in. However I would be satisfied if we avoided relegation this season as I believe the platform is there to build upon and grow in the seasons to come.
One of my reasons for this belief is the comparison with O’Neill’s first season at Aston Villa. After an average season, not unlike the one we are experiencing now, O’Neill went on to achieve a sixth-place finish the following season. Bearing in mind that he was given funds to bring in a large number of players, I think if similar were to occur this summer then I would be confident of a top-half finish next season.
I believe the top-six is harder to crack, with the emergence of Tottenham and Manchester City in recent years. However I feel that a top-10 finish next season could be achievable.
I think it is likely that O’Neill will have the funds to spend this summer as our squad is currently down to the bare bones. I will concede that this season hasn’t been as productive as we may have hoped, especially after the turnaround in fortunes we underwent when O’Neill first took charge.
However, I think it has been a learning process for the manager and he will now know which areas of the squad require improvements and which players he will look to let go.
Overall I believe, provided we avoid relegation, we can look forward with optimism to next season and hopefully go on to achieve something similar to what Villa achieved during O’Neill’s reign in the Midlands.
By Chris Button, FanZone’s Sunderland blogger. Follow us on Twitter at @FanZone!