MARTIN O’NEILL predicted that Saturday’s defeat by Arsenal will become part of Sunderland’s learning curve as they look to improve as a side for the remainder of this season.
The Black Cats have advanced markedly since the arrival of their new manager in December, evolving a high-tempo pressing game and a very effective counter-attacking style.
They have played good football in that time, too, but on Saturday they found themselves struggling to gain and hold on to possession.
And O’Neill believes there are lessons for the team to learn in maintaining shape and concentration when the pressure is on – with Arsenal next up again in Saturday’s FA Cup fifth round.
He said: “That game will stand us in good stead because we had to experience playing without the ball for long periods, and we can learn from that.
“It was tough because the pitch was heavy, too, yet we still took the game to them around the hour mark before we started to tire late on.”
O’Neill was proud of his young guns – in particular James McClean, who fired home his second goal in consecutive league games, and Fraizer Campbell, who adapted as well as he could to being played out on the right wing.
“James got a bit of luck when the ball was gifted to him, but he still needed to produce a good finish,” said the manager.
“I thought he was splendid again. And tireless. Where he gets the energy from I don’t know, or the confidence to take on these established players.
“As for Fraizer, I’ve been delighted just to get him back on the field of play and making an impact.
“What I didn’t want to do was get outnumbered in the middle of the pitch and we managed to avoid that by playing Fraizer on the right-hand side, where he could still get forward.”
Having acknowledged that the midweek cup efforts had taken a toll on his players, O’Neill needed the rub of the green to go his side’s way, but it was not to be.
“Arsenal are a very fine side,” he said. “But we had a great shout for a penalty in the first half – it looked a penalty.
“Most other occasions the referee would have given it, but this time he chose to ignore it.
“Then, in the second half, the ball has fallen nicely to them for their equaliser, just as we might have been thinking that we might go on to win the game.”