Date: 29th August 2012 at 9:31pm
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We ask Vital Sunderland for their views ahead of Saturday’s game at the Liberty Stadium

1. Tell us about your pre-season, how has it gone for you? Happy with your signings?

It wasn’t a classic pre-season for us, put it that way! We took part in the Peace Cup in South Korea and came third after losing our opening game to local side Seongnam 1-0 before beating FC Gronigen 3-2 in the 3/4th-place play-off – probably the highlight of pre-season for us! We lost 1-0 at Hartlepool, 2-0 at Helsinborgs, 1-0 at Leicester and scraped a 1-1 draw at Derby. From that lot you can probably deduce that our biggest problem was, and may remain, scoring goals.

In terms of personnel, Carlos Cuellar signed on a free transfer after leaving Aston Villa. Martin O’Neill had always seemed likely to bring him up here but to be perfectly honest we had five centre-halves already, one has moved on in Michael Turner, but we’re still overly stocked at centre-back for me, especially with youngsters like Louis Laing and John Egan trying to make an impression too.

A striker was O’Neill’s number one target and with the Steven Fletcher deal taking forever and a day to complete we signed Louis Saha on a one-year deal. With Fraizer Campbell the only really senior forward at the club it made sense and he has proven his class in recent times at Spurs and Everton. Finally last week O’Neill got his man, signing top-target Fletcher for £14m. We have paid over the odds for Fletcher and will never re-coup that, (unless he scores 30 this season and City slap in a ludicrous bid!), but for a club of our size his goals will be the difference between mid-table mediocrity and the top-half.

Finally Adam Johnson signed for £10m. A real coup if you ask me, I’ve seen him live a number of times and he’s an excellent player. It will do him the power of good to take a big step down in terms of the size of club he is at and play regular football. It should certainly improve his England chances going forward too. It also leaves O’Neill with the pleasant headache of three excellent wide players ine Johnson, Seb Larsson and James McClean.

2. In relation to your Summer transfer window activity, what are your expectations this season under Martin O’Neill?

Before the signings of Johnson and Fletcher I would have been a lot more pessimistic. There are still a few deficiencies in the squad, particularly at full-back where Phil Bardsley, currently injured, is our only option assuming Kieran Richardson takes up the opportunity to move closer to home and join Fulham in the near future.

Johnson and Fletcher are players of genuine quality and I am confident with those two added and maybe one or two more that a top-half finish is not beyond us. We were two points off of the top 10, I see no reason why we can’t bridge that gap this season.

3. What are your general thoughts on your manager? Is he the right man to take you forward?

Absolutely yes. Steve Bruce was never accepted 100 per cent because of his Geordie roots, by the end of his tenure you would have had to look long and hard for a Bruce sympathizer. The appointment of O’Neill was as good as universally backed by Sunderland fans and the fact he is a self-confessed Sunderland supporter is an added bonus – not that it makes him any more suited to the job of course.

He’s a pragmatist and someone who has excelled in the past in pushing average teams on – Leicester City and Aston Villa in most recent times. Obviously Villa fans are incredibly bitter about the ludicrous sums of money wasted under him, but he delivered some excellent finishes and a major cup final. We’d love a slice of that at the Stadium of Light in the near future. As long as owner Ellis Short keeps a tight grip on the purse strings, he’ll do very well here.

4. What are your team’s weaknesses, that the Swans should look to exploit?

‘Full backs are our weakness’
Vital Sunderland

Full-back for sure. The aforementioned Bardsley is injured whilst Richardson will probably have joined Fulham by then meaning that central midfielder’s Craig Gardner and Jack Colback will play at left and right full-back respectively. Neither player is a complete stranger to the full-back roles, however they are both central midfielder’s by trade and for a reason. If Scott Sinclair is still around by Saturday and makes the team he could definitely cause us issues in the wide areas. A lot of extra onus will be placed on Johnson and McClean to protect the full-backs. 

5. What are your strengths? And who will be your key player(s) on Saturday?

I think our wide corps are excellent and few clubs outside the top five or six have such quality in those positions. McClean burst onto the scene last season and was highly impressive, going on to win the club’s ‘Young Player of the Season’ award. Before Johnson arrived I would have said he was the one member of the squad who had that genuine ‘X-factor’, someone who could make something happen from nothing and make the opposition pay for it.

Johnson will prove an excellent addition out wide and looks likely to start down the right-hand side again as he did versus Morecambe in the League Cup. He’ll cause problems cutting inside and he showed at Manchester City where Roberto Mancini often utilised.

6. How would you expect Sunderland to setup against the Swans? Will Martin O’Neil tactically prepare for a draw or will be more ambitious and go to end Swansea’s excellent winning run?

‘The plan under O’Neill will always be to soak up the pressure, win the ball back, get it wide and hit the opposition on the counter.’
Vital Sunderland

I expect him to set the team up as he usually does. He doesn’t really try to change it too much from game-to-game and although Swansea have such a clear style of play which you can plan for, I doubt that he will deviate from his usual 4-4-1-1 with Stephane Sessegnon in behind Fletcher. The plan under O’Neill will always be to soak up the pressure, win the ball back, get it wide and hit the opposition on the counter.

7. You drew 0-0 against Arsenal on the opening day, happy with that result and performance?

Absolutely. Obviously Arsenal had the better of the game by far but we will definitely take a point. With only Saha and Cuellar signed at that point I think it was a bit of a morale-booster for the doom-mongers to show that we aren’t a terrible side and that we can get a decent result against a top-four side.

8. Swansea City have won their first two games under new manager Michael Laudrup, how did you expect the Swans to cope in their second season – especially with a new manager? A lot of people talked in pre-season about ‘second-season syndrome’…

‘Swansea are the darlings of the Premier League and I for one hope that continues this term.

Vital Sunderland

In our Vital Sunderland season previews I’d predicted Swansea to finish 12th or 13th I believe, i.e. a place or two below last season’s finish. I felt that there was enough there and that with Michael Laudrup coming in you had someone who was going to stick the same principles and not try to rock the boat any more than it had been by the departure of Brendan Rodgers. Obviously after two games it’s gone exceptionally well for you and I hope against hope you can keep it up because it would be superb for the league if yourselves and Norwich City could stay up once again this year and start looking towards kicking on and becoming regulars in the Premier League. Let’s face it, everybody enjoys watching an underdog and even more so when they play attractive football, Swansea are the darlings of the Premier League and I for one hope that continues this term.

9. Can the Swans continue their form or do you expect them to soon slide down towards the bottom half of the table? 

I see no reason why they can’t continue their form. You managed last season under Rodgers with a fairly thin squad of players with top-flight experience and with the addition of Michu already paying dividends, Laudrup looks to have the eye for a player and certainly knows his foreign markets  – somewhere where value is of course much greater. Chico Flores looked a bit at sixes and sevens on Match of the Day but I doubt that’s representative. The key thing for me will be how you cope without Joe Allen and perhaps Scott Sinclair. On the basis of the start you’ve made, it really shouldn’t be an issue!

10. What are your predictions for the game? 

I think it will be a hard fought game and I can’t see us keeping a clean-sheet so I will go 2-1 to us.

11. Finally, as many people know now, Swansea City like to play an attractive style of passing play, how does that compare with O’Neil’s style at Sunderland?

Yeah it’s not tiki taka that’s for sure! It’s not ugly either but the game plan is simple and the same as O’Neill has taken to most his clubs. Sit in two banks of four, soak up the pressure, win it back when possible then break with pacey wingers such as McClean and Johnson. It works, to date!

Thanks to Tom at Vital Sunderland for his views. You can visit Vital Sunderland here

We’ll shortly be providing our answers to Vital Sunderland’s questions, so keep an eye out for that this week.