x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Sunderland don’t have Paolo Di Canio to hide behind anymore

While Paolo Di Canio's departure from Sunderland was no surprise, he is not the only one to blame for the club's precarious position in the Premier League.

Paolo Di Canio is not wholly to blame for Sunderland's poor form in recent times. Tony Marshall / Getty Images
Paolo Di Canio is not wholly to blame for Sunderland's poor form in recent times. Tony Marshall / Getty Images

His departure was entirely in keeping with his reign. A magnetic attraction to the headlines was proved even at the last as his sacking dropped an astonishing Manchester derby to the second story on the sports news shows.

For the past six months, it seems as though everyone has been talking about Paolo Di Canio, not least because Paolo Di Canio kept referring to Paolo Di Canio as Paolo Di Canio.

The fondness for the third person made the former Sunderland manager both protagonist and chronicler of the rise and fall of Paolo Di Canio, even if he was alone in being surprised by its swift conclusion.

While every game contained a twist to the tale, the football was the subplot, Di Canio the main drama.

Saturday’s 3-0 defeat to West Bromwich Albion concluded with the Italian marching over to the protesting Sunderland supporters, trying to placate them with a typically expressive range of gestures.

The previous week’s loss to Arsenal was notable for Di Canio asking Martin Atkinson to send him off and to his astonishment, if no one else’s, the referee responding by dispatching him to the stands.

A fortnight earlier, the 3-1 setback at Crystal Palace – the promoted club’s only points of the season – may be remembered most for Di Canio’s outspoken post-match criticism of captain John O’Shea and striker Ji Dong-won.

Then a manager whose squad already featured 11 summer signings spoke of the need for new faces. Three more duly came, taking the total of arrivals to 14.

And this is why, no matter how poor Sunderland’s performances were as they mustered a solitary point from their opening five fixtures, how bad the dismissed Italian’s man-management skills were or how preposterous a character he appeared, this is not just about Paolo Di Canio.

While they have been obscured by the flamboyant extrovert on the touchline, chief scout Valentino Angeloni and director of football Roberto De Fanti must share the responsibility for a shocking start and a spending spree that already looks misguided.

After Roy Keane and Martin O’Neill, in particular, invested in overpriced British players, a change of policy was understandable. Yet Sunderland swung to the other extreme; too many of their unheralded imports already look unsuitable.

Besides assembling a cast of strangers, the sense was that they ignored two other factors. Firstly, aided by increased television revenue, their peers last season were able to strengthen significantly.

Southampton, Norwich and Aston Villa, who all finished in the lower half of the table, invested while Sunderland, big spenders in the past, spent the summer scouring Europe for bargains, oblivious to their improving rivals.

Secondly, their dealings left them weaker in several positions. The Black Cats’ outstanding outfield player last season, Danny Rose, was only on loan from Tottenham Hotspur anyway. Their impressive goalkeeper, Simon Mignolet, was sold to Liverpool. Then Stephane Sessegnon, their greatest creative talent, albeit one who only performed sporadically last season, was allowed to join West Brom on deadline day.

After Di Canio criticised Sessegnon’s attitude, it was inevitable the flair player should score against his former employers. It was a moment that summed up Di Canio’s season, his capacity to be wrong, the probability his decisions would backfire and his ability to alienate his players, whether past or present, whenever he opened his mouth.

Yet the reality is that few of the 14 newcomers possess similar pedigree or talent to Sessegnon. Emanuele Giaccherini, the Italy international, is a high-quality recruit, the American Jozy Altidore a much-improved player and the South Korean Ki Sung-yeung an able addition to the midfield.

The broader issue, though, is that Sunderland have bought quantity, not quality, making them more reliant on a small core of proven Premier League players such as O’Shea and Steven Fletcher.

It is why Di Canio’s successor faces a tough task. This particular league table does not lie.

The hardest home games are frontloaded on the fixture list, so they risk being cast adrift at the bottom of the division. The Italian was the quick-fix who saved them from relegation last season but now short-term gain may lead to long-term pain.

Di Canio’s departure leaves a huge void, if only because the attention was focused on him. Without his outsized personality, there may be nothing to camouflage the failings of Sunderland’s squad.