O’Neill – Defence can stay solid

Martin O'Neill
Martin O'Neill
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MARTIN O’NEILL insists Sunderland can solve their wretched goalscoring conundrum, without threatening their defensive resilience.

Although Sunderland’s back-line was uncharacteristically jittery in Tuesday night’s Capital One Cup humiliation to Middlesbrough, the Black Cats defence has still been the big plus point of the campaign so far.

Only Arsenal have conceded fewer Premier League goals than Sunderland, with O’Neill’s side breached just eight times in their eight top-flight outings ahead of Saturday’s visit of struggling Aston Villa.

It is at the other end where the lowest scorers in the division need to make giant strides after mustering a measly six league goals, although O’Neill doesn’t believe it has to come at the expense of defensive vulnerability.

The Sunderland manager told the Echo: “No, I don’t think we need to sacrifice any solidity.

“The players work exceptionally hard and the defending is not just down to a couple of people.

“We’ve been working hard to cut out the danger further up the pitch, but then we should be able to turn that around when we’re in possession.

“It will come. The likes of Adam Johnson will come good. There won’t be a problem there whatsoever.

“But the games are difficult, there’s no doubt about it, and it’s been a tough old start for us. I do know we need to score some goals and that’s something we’re genuinely working on.

“If you said to me after the number of games, we’d have this number of goals, I’d have been a bit surprised.

“I think we can still rectify it, but then you need players flooding into the penalty area and that’s something we’re working on.”

Key to Sunderland’s defensive record this season has been the performances of goalkeeper Simon Mignolet and the central defensive partnership of John O’Shea and Carlos Cuellar.

Experienced duo O’Shea and Cuellar have immediately formed an impressive double act, all the more important considering fellow centre-halves Titus Bramble and Wes Brown remain on the treatment table.

O’Neill added: “I think the goalkeeper has had an exceptional season so far.

“And I’ve been delighted with Carlos Cuellar. After coming on a free, I’ve really been pleased with him.

“Him and John have done very well and that’s been really important for us because, other than Matthew Kilgallon, we’ve not got many options there.

“From when we looked as if we had a bit of strength in depth there, we’ve now got Titus not available again and it’s a really frustrating time for Wes.”