The final international break of the season is over and Manchester United resume their Premier League campaign on Saturday afternoon when they travel to the north-east for a clash against Sunderland AFC. Ahead of that match, David Boyle, a writer for 'Roker Report' -- the Sunderland community here at the SB Nation network -- was kind enough to answer some questions for us in this interview. Without further ado, here's the Q&A:
TBB: Discuss Sunderland's season thus far. Perhaps the most obvious question is, 'how do you feel about your chances of avoiding the drop'? It's been seven successive games without a win and there appears to be some challenging fixtures ahead in the next few weeks: United, away to Chelsea, and the derby with Newcastle.
RR: To be perfectly honest I'm not that confident at all. My emotions at present are a violent cocktail of pessimism based upon what I've seen this season and also past experience of a number of heart-breaking relegations. We simply look like a team that has forgotten how to win and are devoid of ideas out on the field. Even our last victory, away at Wigan, we almost managed to cock-up.
If our recent form wasn't enough of a reason to worry, as you mention, our upcoming fixtures make for harrowing viewing from a Sunderland perspective.
The one thing with Sunderland however is that somehow we often conjure up a result that no-one could have predicted. Recent games against Manchester City being a key example. We may well need at least one of these from the tough games coming up but the back-to-back home games against Stoke and Southampton in May are already shaping up to be huge fixtures in our season if we are to beat the drop.
TBB: Sorry to add to pile on with the negativity, but can you talk about the effects of Steven Fletcher and Lee Cattermole being ruled out for the season? With the recent addition of Danny Graham, Sunderland had switched from a 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1ish shape to a 4-4-2 with Fletcher and Graham up front. Do you think Martin O'Neill will switch back to the 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 -- with Stephane Sessegnon 'in the hole' -- or might Connor Wickham get a chance to partner Graham? And how has Graham settled in?
RR: Whilst the media certainly made a bit of a circus of the "news" earlier in the week with regards to Steven Fletcher and Lee Cattermole's long-term absences it came as no real shock to anyone on Wearside. Fletcher has been "managing" an ankle injury for a number of weeks now so anyone with that knowledge and some semblance of sanity would have predicted a fairly lengthy spell on the sidelines having seen him stretchered off in such a manner. In all honesty we should never have allowed him to join up with the Scottish side whilst carrying a knock - an area we could learn a lot from Sir Alex.
We have also known for some time now that Cattermole would likely need an operation, so news of his season coming to a premature end came as no real shock either. Whatever you think of our skipper, who certainly has his detractors, his influence on our side should not be underestimated. He brings a fantastic drive and determination to the team and before his injuries this term looked as though he may have matured somewhat as a player.
With regards to a likely formation I can certainly see at return to the 4-4-1-1, with Sessegnon playing just off Danny Graham. I'm a fan of Connor Wickham but it would appear O'Neill is not quite so sure on him, his decision to push him out on loan to Sheffield Wednesday leaving us with no forwards on the bench being as blatant example of his opinion as you could wish for.
A move away from 4-4-2 will certainly be a welcome one as this recent experiment from O'Neill has failed miserably. We were being overran in the middle of the park week-in-week-out and our creative players in the wide areas created the square root of buggar all for the forward two - it was a tactical move that proved to be nothing other than an absolute disaster.
Danny Graham is an interesting one at the moment. When he first came in he looked woefully short of match-fitness and seemed to be really struggling to keep up with the pace of the game. Since then, slowly, he has started to show a couple of glimpses of the player that scored on a regular basis in Wales. However, at present, the jury is very much out but he certainly has a huge opportunity now to prove himself.
TBB: Speaking of O'Neill, what are your thoughts on his time at the Stadium of Light? He had the wonderful start when he took over for Steve Bruce but things obviously haven't been so smooth as of late. Do you hope he returns as manager next season? Is the answer to this last question dependent on if the Black Cats avoid relegation?
RR: Despite there being some ridiculous rumours of an approach for David Moyes over the last couple of weeks I can't think of anyone else that could come into the club and make a difference, regardless of what league we are in, unless you start mentioning some stellar names in the game that we have absolutely no chance of attracting.
The issues at Sunderland run much deeper than the man in the tracksuit on the sidelines. To keep things brief, Steve Bruce left behind a woefully average squad in almost every department and a squad that was given very little, or if you read reports following his departure, no tactical guidance. O'Neill on the other hand crafted a well drilled side upon his arrival and implemented a very effective counter-attacking style of play which brought with it a staggering turn around in results.
However since then blatant deficiencies in the squad have become woefully apparent to the point where O'Neill himself has come out in the press bemoaning a lack of quality in the side. Something you don't often see from a manager and to be perfectly honest it's hard to disagree.
While results are hard to take at the moment it is important to have faith in the massive rebuilding job that O'Neill has on his hands. He has already this season began work to ship out as much of the deadwood, of which there is/was plenty, ahead of the summer where, Premier League status depending, O'Neill will certainly require the backing of Ellis Short to overhaul this mediocre squad.
TBB: The last time United and Sunderland met back in December, Danny Rose was arguably Sunderland's player of the season up to that point. Is that still the case now? If not, who are some other standout players for this campaign? And do you think Rose might return to Sunderland on a permanent basis next season?
RR: Danny Rose has been fantastic this term and his absence through injury was a massive blow to the side. There would seem to be some hope in making his time on Wearside more permanent if you read into some of the musings coming out of White Hart Lane and the young lad will surely be one of O'Neill's top priorities in the summer.
However the undoubted star of the show this term for Sunderland has to be Simon Mignolet. It has been great to watch the lad blossom into a genuine top quality forward this season and has saved our bacon countless times this year. Unfortunately with such eye-catching performances comes unwanted interest from the big boys but despite some mischievous comments from his agent a couple of months back Mignolet seems dedicated to the club, for now at least.
Steve Fletcher obviously warrants a mention for his goalscoring exploits, particularly early in the season, however a persistent ankle injury, which has obviously now developed into something a lot more serious, hampered his performances of late.
TBB: Specifically for Saturday's match, what do you see as some of Sunderland's strengths and/or United weaknesses? What about about the Reds worries you most?
RR: Without wanting to sound overly negative I don't think we have any real strengths, or certainly none that should cause a side of Manchester United's quality an real problems. We used to be decent on the counter, however any pace in the side seems to have vanished. We used to be a threat from set-pieces, however players such as Sebastian Larsson seem to have worryingly misplaced their shooting boots and I can't remember the last time we put in a corner that managed to evade the first man.
Our main threat would certainly come through Stephane Sessegnon who on his day can be a tricky customer to deal with and is certainly capable of a moment of match winning genius. However the Benin man has been inconsistent this term but he still remains the one player we have that could, potentially, unlock a defence.
As for Manchester United, where do you start? There is good reason why your side sit atop the league with a healthy lead. Many have argued that this Manchester United side isn't as good as ones that have gone before and why this may well be true your side are still a force to be reckoned with.
Sunderland fans may well cling to a hope that because Sir Alex is set to rotate his side ahead of some huge games this week we may have a chance, the simple fact is that any United fringe player would walk into this Sunderland side, Christ, they'd probably warrant the captain's armband at this stage as well.