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O'Neill takes up refereeing role to rile Sessegnon
MARTIN O'Neill has adopted an unusual technique to bring the best out of a misfiring Stephane Sessegnon this week – impersonating a rubbish referee.
Sessegnon's form has been one of the major disappointments of Sunderland's start to the season, with the striker appearing to lack both fitness and fire in the opening three matches of the Premier League campaign.
O'Neill conceded as much himself in the wake of last weekend's 1-1 draw with Liverpool, and has attempted to provoke a reaction by targeting Sessegnon for some rough justice on the training ground this week.
The Sunderland boss took control of the referee's whistle as his players participated in a practice game, and purposefully turned down Sessegnon's appeals for a string of free-kicks.
Infuriated by the decisions, the hope is that the Benin international will have an added spark when he lines up against West Ham United this afternoon.
“We did some training on Tuesday and I was refereeing the game,” said O'Neill. “I really irritated him (Sessegnon) because I didn't give him one foul even though he was clearly fouled four times. I really got his temper up if nothing else.
“Would you want him angry? I suppose you would. He'll be fine. He hadn't had a great pre-season with one or two issues, but over time he'll return to his top form again. He was frustrated with himself last weekend, but in time he'll be fine.”
So has this week's stint in the middle given O'Neill a new-found respect for the Premier League referees who have infuriated him on a number of occasions in the past?
“No,” was the simple reply. “I'm not a very good ref I must admit. I'm equally as poor as....I'd better not say! I've got a couple of role models.
“Funnily enough, the players here question my decisions all the time. Even the mild-mannered ones say, 'Gaffer, you didn't get that one right'. It's when you get Seb Larsson complaining about it though when you know you're in trouble.”
There is a more serious side to Sessegnon's struggles as the African has not yet struck up the kind of relationship with Steven Fletcher that could potentially transform Sunderland's attacking ambitions.
There have been fleeting signs of an understanding between the duo, but with Fraizer Campbell and Connor Wickham clearly out of favour and Louis Saha effectively an alternative option for the closing stages of a game, the success or failure of the partnership between Fletcher and Sessegnon will go a long way towards determining the Black Cats' prospects in front of goal.
The effectiveness of the midfield will clearly also be a factor, and like Sessegnon, James McClean has also struggled to reproduce the form he displayed for much of last season.
The Irishman was an unknown quantity last term, but his stellar rise through the ranks has removed any sense of mystery and he now finds himself targeted by opposition defenders from the off.
That was certainly true last weekend, with Liverpool's Martin Kelly closing him down at every opportunity, and O'Neill admits McClean will have to adapt his game to remain one step ahead of his opponents.
“First of all, he should take great confidence from the fact that top-quality players and top-quality clubs like Liverpool are immediately closing him down,” he said. “He should take that as a compliment.
“Now what does he do about it? He has to start thinking a little bit more, maybe coming short to leave space in behind for the forward or midfielder to run into. It's an adjustment the whole time.
“Whereas he could maybe get away with not that great control before, now it has to be spot on. When you are tied down wide and not seeing the ball, there can be a tendency to feel you have to beat the whole team when you do get it. But sometimes, the simple pass back is the best one.”
O'Neill has also instructed McClean to be more mobile and not to feel that he has to stick rigidly to his left-wing position.
Following the lead of Tottenham's Gareth Bale, who increasingly finds himself drifting inside to influence the game and open up space for his full-back, McClean has been told to rove around in order to discomfort defenders.
“James can drift into different positions,” said O'Neill. “At the moment, he is essentially left footed so he needs to improve with his right.
“He's not been brought up in an academy, so maybe he's not had that extra work as a kid. He's really relied on that natural bit of raw talent. Now, he might have to adjust and start picking up other things, but he's capable of doing it.”
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