The home match against Sunderland was not a good result for Bolton Wanderers. It came at the height of our early season slump and helped push us further into the relegation battle. This time around, the Trotters will be hoping for a better result at the Stadium of Light.
We had the pleasure of speaking with the Roker Report's (SBNation's Sunderland blog) Michael Graham about what Sunderland has been like as a team this year and most importantly: what should the men in white expect?
There seems to be a prevalent view in football that O'Neill hasn't really done that much different to what Bruce was doing. But whilst it is true that the shape of the team has remained the same, and the vast majority of the personnel too, it is still a notion I dismiss out of hand entirely. Tactically, Sunderland now play a much tighter and cautious game. Heavy emphasis is placed on getting back into their shape quickly, defending in numbers, and pressing in the right areas. That is the post-Bruce modus operandi of Sunderland and usually results in a certain level of territorial concessions. By contrast, Sunderland were a lot more open and expansive under Steve Bruce - far more open than the current squad is good enough to get away with - and that's why there was such a spectacular initial swing in results. There is the odd sprinking of attacking quality in the side, and O'Neill's more defensive game gave them the opportunity to be match winners rather than the game savers they were under his predecessor.
In addition to that there has also been the immediate impact of James McClean, of course. Bruce has tried to rewrite history a bit and claimed that McClean was injured and unavailable to him during his tenure this season. But during that time McClean played 9 reserve games and was an unused substitute for the first team on numerous other occasions, so that doesn't really add up. The truth is that Bruce just didn't fancy him. It was Niall Quinn and Bryan 'Pop' Robson (Sunderland's new chief scout) who brought him to the club, so just how much Bruce even knew about him is questionable.
However, it looks like that form has dropped off recently. Sunderland have gathered just 4 points from their last available 24. What happened?
It is difficult to put your finger on exactly what has happened there. I suppose the simplest answer is that the goals have dried up. In our last 8 games we have failed to score in 6 of them. There is an argument to be made for a suggestion that O'Neill's Sunderland have been 'found out' a little, though. Once a team guard themselves from counter attacks against Sunderland, there isn't a great deal more to worry about. For all Sunderland are hard to beat, they do lack one or two players to really inject a little pace and quality to their attacking play when it is needed, and whilst Bendtner has a lot of ability on the ball, he isn't a player who is going to offer a team a reliable penalty box presence. That is something O'Neill is sure address this summer.
Sunderland have three players sitting on 7 goals in Larsson, Bendtner, and Sessegnon. Who do you see as the biggest threat out of those three and why?
It would be no exaggeration to say that Stephane Sessegnon is the pivot around which the entire Sunderland side revolves. He takes up positions between the opposition's defence and midfield where he is difficult to pick up and really has the quality to hurt any team in the division. O'Neill has got a lot more out of him than Bruce has by simply setting him free. Sessegnon is absolved of any defensive responsibility of any kind and as such can be effective on the counter attack. Such is his importance to the team, though, he can also be the biggest weakness. Everything goes through him, so if he is out-of-sorts or marked out of the game (considerably easier said than done), then many a Sunderland attack will grind to a frustratingly premature self-inflicted halt.
Sunderland have a history of giving away fouls in poor areas. Why is that? Is it just players losing their heads when attackers approach goals or is it something more?
I'd like to think it is little more than mere indiscipline, although that is another area in which O'Neill has improved things. Still, with terrier-esq players like Phil Bardsley and Lee Cattermole, conceding stupid free kicks is just a necessary evil. It is unlikely that such players will ever learn to defend with their heads rather than their hearts. Whether the merits of that outweighs the costs is a debate that often polarizes the Sunderland support, but it would certainly be fair to say that it can probably be regarded the single most persistent achilles heel of Sunderland over last few years.
Finally, what do you predict the weekend's result will be?
Bolton's brilliantly amusing midweek win at Villa Park has muddied the waters a little here. Before that result I'd have backed a home win strongly, but now I sense that Bolton have caught the scent of opportunity. I'll still say a home win, although I think it will be very tight with Sunderland taking advantage of tired legs in the final 20 minutes to nick a 1-0 win.