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Sessegnon availability indicates change of priority at Paolo Di Canio’s Sunderland

Paolo Di Canio’s Sunderland is going to look rather different to Martin O’Neill’s. Since his arrival, Di Canio has very strongly prioritised hard work, fitness, energy and passion. That doesn’t sound too different from O’Neill though right? O’Neill became unpopular because his team was playing an uninteresting, uninventive, unsubtle and ultimately, unsuccessful brand of football in which honesty and effort was put to the fore of the game plan. Nothing summed this up more than the January signing of Danny Graham for £5.5m. A hard working good professional certainly, but not the right man to add fizzle and goal power to a moribund attack. Indeed the one man in the Sunderland squad who offers a bit of something genial and different is Stephane Sessegnon, and now the Italian has made him available for transfer. Is this a surprising move? Or is it just the next step of Di Canio’s purge of the squad he inherited?

Sessegnon’s 2011/12 season saw him score eight goals and make a further 12. He was one of the under the radar stars of the season, providing sparkle and production in his role behind the central striker. Last summer he was talked about as interesting Arsenal, PSG and Marseille. But this summer he is surplus to requirements. He must have had a terrible 2012/13 season then? Well, the odd thing is, the answer to that question is yes and no.

Stephane Sessegnon

The stats took a slight downturn; seven goals and six assists, but the perception of Sessegnon as something of a spent force came more from the fact that as Sunderland’s only creative player, when he struggled the whole team did. The burden of expectation to make things happen fell solely on him more often than not and although he wasn’t really that much worse than in 2011/12, the slight dip in his form, allied to big drops elsewhere exacerbated his apparent decline.

James McClean regressed horrendously last season, his run fast and hard and smash the ball towards the goal game was easily nullified once his debut season novelty had worn off. Adam Johnson’s one trick of cutting in from the right to try and bend in a shot resulted in some good goals and a solid nine assists but it all added in to the one dimensional play that plagued Sunderland all season. With no central midfielder capable of passing the ball, and both wingers struggling for consistent threat, the only imaginative presence was Sessegnon. It meant that for teams defending Sunderland, taking out Sessegnon as a threat meant they ran out of ideas. Short of giving it to Johnson and hoping he could do something or that when fit, Steven Fletcher kept scoring with every single shot he took, they couldn’t score goals.

Di Canio is trying to change this, but Sessegnon seems to fall foul of him mostly because of his lack of top end pace and even more because of his dubious work ethic defensively. The problem Sunderland could face though, is that their problems last season didn’t come from defensive or effort issues. They tried hard, but they didn’t have the variety and subtlety to get them out of trouble. Selling Sessegnon means that the club lose their one player capable of sparkle. Yes, he doesn’t run hard, he doesn’t press hard, but he can make something out of nothing.

The squad Sunderland are building next season are going to be modelled on the German model of pressing high, pressing constantly and breaking with speed. Clearly, there is no place for a meandering Sessegnon in that. But if Di Canio is copying Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, he needs to remember that they have the likes of Mario Gotze, Marco Reus, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Franck Ribery. Players of exceptional quality on the ball. Not just fast players and hard working players.

It seems as if Di Canio’s recruitment is swapping the strong, try hard qualities of Martin O’Neill for a team of athletic, try hard players, looking to press and squeeze at all times. But if he doesn’t add any quality and class it could be swapping one kind of inefficiency for another.

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Sunderland’s capture of Modibo Diakite a major coup for Black Cats

Paolo Di Canio and his new director of football Roberto De Fanti’s summer recruitment drive has begun with the capture of three Bosman free agents but it is the name, and stature, of Modibo Diakite that stands out. Diakite has long been on Premier League radars due to his sheer physicality and size. He is 6’4′ and also quick and very strong. He is an excellent aerial presence and capable of dominating games. He would appear at first glance to be an ideal partner to the more cerebral John O’Shea and the talk is that they beat several big teams such as Juventus, Napoli and Liverpool to get him.

Diakite is one of those players who has always been highly regarded, but at Lazio he struggled to impose himself on the first team. The 2011/12 was his best in terms of games played with 25 in Serie A, not playing at all last season. This is for a couple of reasons. When new manager Vladimir Petkovic arrived at Lazio last summer Diakite was out injured and he remained so until November. By that point Lazio had established a central defensive pairing of the more reliable, but less dominating, 36 and 34 year old pairing of Biava and Andre Dias. Petkovic is something of a disciplinarian, a man who expects nothing but endeavour and hard work at all times and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Sounds a little like Paolo Di Canio right?

Modibo Diakite

Under Petkovic Lazio play a more tactically sophisticated brand of football than most teams in the Premier League. One of the knocks on Diakite has been that his positioning and footballing intelligence is a weakness, and it is a weakness that didn’t sit right with what Petkovic needed from his defence. If he needed big physical athletes he wouldn’t have wheeled out a defence with a combined age of 70. He needed positional discipline and organisation and with two deep-sitting midfielders to protect them and do the running. It made Diakite expendable for Lazio’s specific system and personnel, but by no means undesirable for other teams.

Despite only playing once last season Diakite attracted interest from around Europe. Mostly, these teams were looking at his raw tools and wondering if, with the right coaching, they could make him a starter. But Diakite wanted to start right now, and so Sunderland had an advantage. If Diakite has a great year in England, as a starter, he still has a chance of making the French World Cup squad in an area that France aren’t overstocked with talent. Sunderland give him that platform.

Still, beating the likes of Napoli and Juventus to a player is still quite an achievement. All it would take is an injury there and he could be in the Champions League, so Sunderland obviously sold themselves well. The presence of Lazio idol Di Canio no doubt helps, and he will be more than aware of how best to use Diakite. He has all the physical capabilities needed for success in the Premier League and if they pair him with a positionally sound O’Shea, with some good midfield protection he can be a big hit.

Newcastle vs Sunderland: The Premier League’s number one derby

The derby…a personal view on what it means

I’ve read a lot of articles recently, looked through a lot of Twitter feeds and a lot of forums in preparation for Sunday’s big Tyne-Wear derby, and it still makes me laugh when Sunderland fans feel the need to refer back to a game in 1908 to have a dig at Newcastle fans. Over 100 years ago, before the first of two world wars and before anyone could even envisage a television set, yet Sunderland fans still feel its necessary to chant the words, “we beat the scum 9-1″. I will point out that despite none of these fans (usually 13-16 year olds) will have witnessed the game, Newcastle fielded a reserve team after winning the league comfortably that season. Just a small pointer to get started.

With Sunderland hovering at the bottom end of the table, all their attention will be on Sunday’s crunch game, however for Newcastle it was all about Thursday night where they took on Benfica in the Europa League quarter-finals. Despite the bad timing of such a game I would be very surprised if any Newcastle fan wanted it any other way. To be back playing in Europe on the big stage is something we could only have dreamed about when we were in the Championship three seasons ago and to make the last eight, despite injuries and suspensions, is something to be very proud of. Just to compare the two teams in terms of European adventures Newcastle have played in Europe for 17 separate seasons playing over 120 competitive matches in cities such as Barcelona, Turin, Milan, Brugge, Moscow, Lisbon and Athens. Sunderland have played four games courtesy of an FA Cup win in 1973. And despite Newcastle’s hectic schedule this season, having to travel all over Europe clocking up thousands of air miles, they still find themselves above their rivals despite Sunderland’s longest European trip this season being away to Swansea City.

Alan Pardew

Back to Sunday’s game and despite some so-called pundits seemingly brushing our derby aside as a relatively small event in comparison to the so-called bigger derbies, it is without the question in my eyes the biggest and most fierce derby in the country. The passion that comes down from the stands onto the pitch is something the Manchester, North London, Midlands, and Merseyside derbies could only dream of having. As the famous saying goes, ‘you would have to see it to believe it’, and in this case that could not be more true. Having been to many derby games myself I can tell any neutral fan outside this forgotten part of the country that no matter how passionate you feel towards your own team, the passion your derby creates will never come close to what us north-east natives create.

The derby for us is not just a one-day event. When the fixtures are released in June that is when we start preparing for the two games and from then the countdown begins. As the game draws nearer the nerves become a little more increased and that is when you start getting the light-hearted banter between the two sets of fans, and as it gets closer and closer that banter more often then not turns a little bit more aggressive until you are so pumped up for the game it is the only thing that is keeping you awake. As a Newcastle fan I love both derbies, but nothing compares to a derby at the home of football, St James Park. The whole city is anticipating something special, and a lot of the time that is exactly what we get. The 5-1 demolition in 2010 instantly springs to mind as my best-ever derby experience. From waking up bright and early, from heading to the ground and to hearing the roar of the crowd as the players emerge to Local Hero. Nothing quite beats a derby day at Newcastle.

Newcastle fan celebrates

The word ‘obsessed’ is used all too often in this part of the world, when one of our teams get beat the fans find it comforting to label their rivals as obsessed with their club’s demise. I’ve done it after a defeat, as I am sure everyone who reads this will have done. It is a heat of the moment thing you feel obliged to do just because you cannot stand the thought of your rivals taunting you! For Sunderland though, it seems to come all too natural. With modern day technology I have seen NUFC Twitter feeds littered with Sunderland fans mocking us after a defeat, whether it is a friendly match or a massive European game. I would love to see the day when fans concentrate on their own team’s affairs without having to judge others. The derby is another matter. We live for day when we beat Sunderland and can label ourselves, as Sunderland fans call themselves ‘top dogs of the north-east’. The derby can either leave you feeling top of the world or literally rock bottom. After a defeat you do not want to show your face to anyone, let alone a rival fan. You log out of all social networking sites, switch off your mobile phones and lock yourselves away for a good two days. And when you decide to come back into the world, you turn your phone on to see missed calls and texts from the people you have been so keen to avoid.

I’ve been lucky enough to witness some great derby games. The 5-1 humiliation of 2010, the 3-2 win when Emre curled in that glorious free-kick past a helpless Kelvin Davies, the 4-1 win when Alan Shearer scored his last-ever competitive goal from the penalty spot in front of the travelling fans, and of course the memorable 1-0 away win when Ryan Taylor defied all the odds from the corner of the box. No matter what part of the country or the world you are from, if you support Newcastle United you know exactly what Sunday’s game means to us all. It simply means everything. So Paul Merson can take his beloved Midland Derby, Charlie Nicholas his Old Firm derby, Alan Smith his North London derby, Phil Thompson his Merseyside derby and Gary Neville his Manchester derby, put them all together and still not come anywhere near what our derby means. The Tyne-Wear derby is simply THE derby.

Di Canio stars in Swindon’s Italian job

When Paulo Di Canio was appointed Swindon Town manager nearly a year ago many pundits commented that he was destined for failure and that his fiery temperament would cause his downfall. Eleven months on though, Swindon are celebrating one of their best and most exciting seasons in recent memory, clinching the League Two championship with a thumping 5-0 victory over Port Vale in front of very nearly 13,000 fans at the County Ground.

Di Canio had to completely rebuild a team who had gone from play-off finalists in League One in 2010 to finishing bottom in 2011. Most of the squad left as the Italian started afresh and attempted to rid the club of the losing mentality and drinking culture that had engulfed the team during the relegation season.

With four defeats in their first five league games the critics seemed to being proved right, especially after the spat between Di Canio and striker Leon Clarke. After a home defeat to Southampton in the Carling Cup and with TV cameras watching, the coach and player were involved in a bust up on the sidelines, which spilled over into the tunnel. Di Canio swore that Clarke would never play for him again and the Swindon board backed their manager. Clarke was loaned out to Chesterfield and Di Canio called a team meeting to improve the unity in his squad. Four days later Swindon responded with a 3-2 victory over then league leaders Rotherham and have never looked back.

Whilst it is easy to say that Di Canio is all passion and discipline and almost intimidates his players into performing, this would overlook his tactical ability and knowledge of the game. Moving players into positions they have not played before such as the left-footed Matt Ritchie onto the right of midfield has been rewarded with 11 goals and Ritchie becoming the League Two player of the year. Add to this the case of Alan McCormack; a centre midfielder moved into the centre of defence, which has made Swindon’s goals against record the second lowest across all four divisions.

Di Canio’s coaching and organisation of the team has seen them concede just eight league goals at home all season and just one in their last seventeen home league games. An incredible run starting on New Year’s Eve saw Swindon win ten straight league games, which propelled them from seventh in the division to a four point lead at the top that they have never relinquished.

It isn’t just in the league that Di Canio has transformed Swindon though, with a fantastic run in the Johnstone’s paint trophy, which saw them reach the final at Wembley where they lost 2-0 to Chesterfield. This season saw Swindon’s best run in the FA cup since 1996 where they reached the fourth round knocking out Huddersfield and winning the Ronnie Radford award for the shock of this season’s competition for beating Premier League Wigan 2-1 in the third round.

Discipline and respect is a big part of Di Canio’s management style though, as was shown most recently when he dropped nine players over the space of two games for going out drinking after a victory over Plymouth, even though promotion was not yet secured. He has a ruthless side that has been shown throughout the season when a number of times he has taken players off within the first half for not following his instructions.

Di Canio has done all this whilst dealing with the personal tragedy of losing both his parents within six months of each other, but has still shown great professionalism to be pitch side for games within hours of finding out the news. This has further endeared him to Swindon fans and he now joins the list of Swindon managerial legends alongside Glenn Hoddle, Ossie Ardiles and Lou Macari. Not many now would doubt him repeating the feat in League One next season.

By Chris Newman

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