PAOLO DI CANIO wants his improving middle men to continue looking for the killer ball, rather than playing safe.
Central midfield double-act Seb Larsson and Alfred N’Diaye have shone in Sunderland’s back-to-back wins over Newcastle and Everton after making immediate progress under Di Canio’s stewardship.
Although fellow midfielder Craig Gardner will return from suspension for Monday’s trip to his former club Aston Villa, the Brummie may struggle to break up the Larsson and N’Diaye partnership.
Head coach Di Canio has been impressed by the pair, hailing Larsson as “one of the best” players in the Premier League after last Saturday’s victory over Everton.
But the Italian is keen for both his central midfielders to continue contributing in an attacking sense, rather than looking backwards or sideways.
“I don’t like midfield players that touch 100 balls and don’t create anything,” said Di Canio.
“They never make mistakes and the statistics show they make 100 passes and 100 of them are good, but they are to the goalkeeper.
“I prefer to see my midfielders make 10 passes forward, seven mistakes, but three effective deliveries and then we’re going to score.
“The second goal at Newcastle came when Sebastian beat his opponent and then delivered it to Adam (Johnson) straightaway.”
Di Canio has also tried to instil a more aggressive mentality into his midfield, stressing the importance of putting pressure on the opposition and denying them space.
“The heart of the game is in the middle,” he said.
“If you don’t put pressure on your opponents and let them play, at this level they’re going to smash you.
“It is not just down to my central midfielders, but also my wingers when they play compact.
“Everyone in modern football wants to go down the middle to damage the opponents.
“But if we are a good unit, with good discipline and aggression, that can cause problems to the opponents and give you an advantage.”
Central midfield has been an area where Sunderland have struggled this season, particularly after the loss of skipper Lee Cattermole, whose campaign largely came to an end in November.
But Di Canio attributes Sunderland’s improvement to his training ground strategy to make the team work more harmoniously as a unit.
He added: “If you work together either on the ball or off the ball, for sure you are going to save energy.
“It’s crucial these days to maintain distance between players and move in time and then you can be in the right place.
“We have to move in time and that comes from the training sessions.
“It’s not just about physical work, it’s in the head as well.
“You have to tell them why and show them why.
“Now they are realising straightaway because I’ve shown them.”