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Little safety in numbers

The stats aren't pretty.

One year on, Martin O'Neill's Sunderland side have made little progress Photograph: Getty
One year on, Martin O'Neill's Sunderland side have made little progress Photograph: Getty

Martin O'Neill's Sunderland have won just two of their last 21 Premier League outings. And that's why, despite losing fewer games (four) than Tottenham Hotspur, they were sitting one point off the drop zone going into the weekend.

Today they travel to Norwich in what we used to call relegation six-pointers. And it won't be lost on anyone that it's nearly 12 months exactly since O'Neill was called in to replace Steve Bruce, who was also one point off the bottom three at the time of his sacking.

The curious thing about O'Neill's Sunderland is just how streaky they've been. He was an instant hit, accumulating 29 points in his first 16 games in charge ... the kind of clip that gets you Champions League football. But from his last 21, Sunderland have just 18 points, which is relegation type form.

How to explain it? One theory goes a little like this. O'Neill enjoyed immediate success after taking over from Bruce partly because the side weren't quite as bad as they had been portrayed in the media and mostly because he gave them an instant motivational lift.

Years of hearing Bruce say the same things repeatedly had worn thin. That's why Sunderland did much better with largely the same cast, the one exception being James McClean, who O'Neill elevated from the reserves. By April, though, Sunderland were firmly in mid-table and, what's more, O'Neill's refusal to rotate (not that he really had the squad to do so) meant fatigue had set in and Sunderland were running on fumes.

So the squad was overhauled in the summer. In came Danny Rose (on loan from Tottenham) and former Rangers man Carlos Cuellar to bolster the back four. Joining them were Adam Johnson for some pace and creativity on the wing, Louis Saha for some firepower off the bench and, of course, Steven Fletcher to get you goals up front. Johnson and Fletcher cost a combined £23 million, a not insignificant sum for a loss-making club. Fletcher has done his bit, netting six times, the problem is he's had very little help. Indeed, Sunderland have fewer shots on goal than any other side in the Premier League. They also rank dead last in goals from open play – four, when the league average is 11.7 – and are third from the bottom in crosses per match. And it's not as if they've turned into some kind of defensive juggernaut either – only Reading have conceded more shots per game.

The flipside of this is that, relative to the same set of fixtures last season, Sunderland have the same number of points. And, of late, they've also been rather unlucky. They fell 2-1 at Everton after outplaying the opposition for much of the game. And last weekend two blunders from goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, a dive by Liam Ridgwell and a last-ditch counter-attacking goal condemned them to a 4-2 defeat at West Bromwich Albion.

The problem for Sunderland, though, is that while it's true that with a bit more good fortune they could just as easily be in mid-table, it's equally true that this team have shown few signs of evolution. This is a relatively young side – of the starting front six, Stephane Sessegnon, 28, and Sebastian Larsson, 27, are the only ones older than 26 – you would expect to see them growing together. Perhaps that's what will happen long-term. Despite rumours to the contrary, having committed to O'Neill, it's unlikely that owner Ellis Short will tear up the blueprint at this stage.

So for now it's all about building something and seeing if this youthful core can come together. A bit like what was supposed to happen at Aston Villa. The difference here, though, is that, unlike his Villa counterpart Randy Lerner, Short is unlikely to reopen the tap for more signings. O'Neill will have to work with what he has and make the Sunderland kids better.

And that's something he has not had to do in a while.

After two scoreless home draws Rafa Benitez's defenders (and Roman Abramovich's bootlickers) pointed out that the Spaniard hadn't had time to do much, but at least he had straightened out Chelsea's supposedly leaky defence. You wonder where that defensive solidity went in yesterday's 3-1 defeat at West Ham. Chelsea conceded three goals in a Premier League game just twice under Roberto Di Matteo, so even the notion that Benitez would some kind of quick-fix defensive guru goes out the window.

The reality is that Benitez is a good manager who needs time and control to make a difference. At Chelsea he doesn't have either.

Nor does he have a fan base eager to embrace him, a legacy of some comments he made back when he was managing Liverpool. Or, indeed, a well-assorted team with a reliable goalscorer up front.

Benitez might not have been the worst possible appointment Abramovich could have made. But it's hard to see how he could have been appointed at a worse time.

The ballots are in, the 23-man shortlist has been whittled down, and last week Fifa announced that the 2012 Ballon d'Or will be won by one of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi or Andres Iniesta. No real surprise there, the only question is whether Fifa can keep the final decision a secret between now and January 7, when the award will be handed out.

Regardless of who wins, there will be complaints. Should it go to the man who turned in the best individual performances during 2012? That's Messi. Should it be the guy who didn't just excel individually, but also helped his team win important silverware – Ronaldo? Or should it be the guy who often gets overlooked because he's in a star-studded side but who was arguably the player of the tournament at the European Championship and really ought to finally get some recognition for a stellar career, Iniesta?

There are no official criteria. Folks vote based on personal preference and what aspect they consider most important. Sepp Blatter likes it that way, because it "generates debate". Maybe so. But it also means that most years someone will be entitled to grumble if things don't go his way.

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