Before a ball was kicked this season, Niall Quinn hit the nail on the head when querying whether Paolo Di Canio has the right interpersonal credentials to make Sunderland succeed;
“The big question mark is over Di Canio’s man-management skills. Will he be able to get the players he has kept to gel with the many new signings he has brought in during the summer? That is a big ask because, make no mistake, the Premier League will punish weaknesses.”
The impassioned Italian head coach struck the right cord with his exuberance when given six games to save Sunderland from relegation. It was the antithesis of the much more sombre man he replaced, Martin O’Neill. He achieved the goal and to boot, scripted his own folklore with the 3-0 victory over arch-rival Newcastle at St. James’ Park. The subsequent 6-1 thrashing by Aston Villa was largely ignored.
The self-proclaimed revolution was here. It was to be based upon fitness and discipline. Sunderland players were not physically or mentally tough enough, Di Canio decried. He brought with him his own Italian training team, while Roberto De Fanti was appointed as director of football to carry out what he termed a “refurbishment” of the squad. Few could disagree, it was long overdue.
High Risk Strategy
The appointment of the fiery 45-year old Italian was always going to be a high-risk strategy. His career both as a player and a coach has been littered with controversy. The general consensus when he took his first managerial job at Swindon in 2011 was that he could be a big success or an unmitigated disaster. Although it proved to be the former, there was a similar dichotomy of opinion when Ellis Short surprising called for him to try keeping Sunderland in the Premier League.
Behind his impressive record at the County Ground, there were several fallings out with players and inane substitutions that can only be best described as knee-jerk reactions. He also had a revolving door policy in signing 38 players and dispensing with 26 during his 20-month tenure. Such impetuousness did not detract from winning the Football League Two title in style, reaching the Johnstone`s Paint Trophy final and challenging for a League One play-off place before leaving Swindon.
Repeating the Same Formula in the Premiership
Many successful managers over the years have emphasised that football is a simple game, each using basic psychology. Di Canio seems to have taken his formula to Sunderland but there are great doubts whether it will work in the Premier League. Roy Keane’s strict disciplinary regime, copied partly from Brian Clough, proved highly successful in gaining promotion from the Championship but struggled to keep the team up before it all fell apart.
The Italian head coach is equally authoritarian, but unlike Keane, is very much hands-on, even to the point of being up players’ noses. The essential ingredient, both appear to be lacking, is in gaining respect, which O’Neill also seemed to fall down on after a honeymoon period. It can take years to accomplish as Sir Alex Ferguson will testify. Like everyone, players are individuals and need to be handled with an equilibrium of tact.
The problem for Di Canio is that he does not have time on his side and has yet to progress on the learning curve. Parallels have already been drawn with the fate of Mark Hughes at QPR last season after bringing so many players in but failing to gel them into a team. Perhaps it is a little premature but the writing appears on the wall with the task all the more difficult having so many different nationalities.
Respect Needs Earning
The Italian coach can hardly engender respect by the way he treats some of his players. There were early signs in his mysterious outburst after the friendly win against FC Midtjylland that followed some enterprising performances in Hong Kong. No doubt there has been frustrations about the shortage of transfer funds. It is also hardly conducive to a happy working environment when none of the existing squad have yet signed or perhaps even been offered contract extensions with several players in their last year.
His tinkering with the team selection is also hardly helpful and started with the surprise dropping of Cabral after a fairly impressive debut against Fulham. It came after Di Canio was involved in a hotel fracas on the eve of the Southampton match that cast its own shadows. During the game, there were questionable substitutions, including most notably the introduction of Connor Wickham when the team was leading with less than 10 minutes to go.
The most glaring example of his erratic behaviour was in his treatment of Ji Dong-Won during the MK Dons game that raised a few eyebrows. Firstly, warming up Wickham with the game having barely started and then finally replacing Ji a few minutes after the restart, presumably so he could be punished by facing boos from sections of the crowd. His punishment was replicated at Southampton when he was subbed at half-time and sent out first to sit on bench. Perhaps little noticed was Di Canio seen sniggering after Crystal Palace scored their third after he had refused to replace John O’Shea when he was sent off.
To make up for his eccentricities, much faith has been placed in the coaching staff Di Canio has brought with him in the hope that players would actually improve their performances in training. But after conceding all five goals so far unnecessarily, including three from set pieces, questions must be asked if anything is being learned during double fitness sessions. Early signs of players running into spaces off-the-ball also seem to have dried up.
There is no doubt about Di Canio’s passion and football is often all about confidence. But this can only be built by motivation and how players are handled, not by manic man-management. It is still early days to turn everything around but it will become harder and harder unless there is more signs of having a happy camp and more amenable head coach. Success breeds success but without it all can so easily go pear-shaped. It is a big ask but there is only one person that can put it right. Endless signings are meaningless without a tactful and responsible coach at the top.
Gary McLaughlin writes at the new Sunderland blog, WeAreWearside.com.