The huge Italian job Di Canio has on his hands at Sunderland

WORK TO DO ... new Sunderland boss Paolo Di Canio.
WORK TO DO ... new Sunderland boss Paolo Di Canio.

A RE-RUN of Gary Neville’s brutal analysis from the comfort of the Sky Sports sofa won’t be necessary for Paolo Di Canio to grasp the deficiencies of this Sunderland side.

As Sunderland have meandered towards the relegation zone over the last two months, there has been a painfully obvious set of problems which have seen the prospect of the drop go from possibility to probability.

Despite a scoreline against Manchester United which was far from a disgrace, there was again that lack of urgency, that lack of tangible creativity and most worryingly a complete lack of a goal threat.

That was why Ellis Short re-scheduled his planned summer investigation into why the Black Cats found themselves embroiled in exactly the same situation as they were four years ago, despite umpteen more millions of the American’s bank account being invested.

The end of the season offered no harbour of sanctity anymore. Short realised that by then it could be too late, and he brought the axe down on Martin O’Neill in by far the biggest gamble of his Sunderland stewardship.

Sunderland have looked almost punch-drunk over the last four games, not quite believing they are in this mess of their own making, but neither having the answers to reach the sanctity of 40 points.

Unlike O’Neill’s appointment, Di Canio has already split opinion among Sunderland supporters.

Some will see an untested maverick; a manager who publicly entered into confrontation with his players at Swindon Town and whose political views will be subjected to microscopic scrutiny now he is in charge of a Premier League club.

Others see a fresh face; an option outside the usual suspects in the dug-out, who will restore some colour and passion after the most mundane of seasons.

It is that latter quality of putting some fire in bellies which surely appealed to Short as he cast around the available options after pushing the ejector seat on O’Neill.

The likes of Adam Johnson and Stephane Sessegnon certainly need some renewed gusto after half-hearted displays from the pair against the runaway Premier League leaders.

History tells us that Peter Reid’s motivational abilities produced such a reaction in the fag end of the 1994-95 and Di Canio could emerge as a similarly inspired choice.

Of course, he could also be plagued by the same problems as O’Neill and Steve Bruce.

The one constant at Sunderland over the last two years has been the bulk of a playing squad who have laboured in the bottom half of the table.

Other than in O’Neill’s first four months in charge, Bruce’s recruits from his wholesale shopping spree in the summer of 2011 have fallen well below Short’s objective of a consistent, top 10 Premier League outfit.

The same problems have continued.

A lack of pace in the side never saw O’Neill’s counter-attacking strategy produce the spoils it garnered at Aston Villa.

And the absence of a central midfielder capable of dictating proceedings has starved Sunderland’s under-performing widemen of a swift, threatening supply-line.

A lacklustre first half against United again highlighted Sunderland’s problems without Lee Cattermole.

The skipper has been a huge miss, but putting his cajoling and leadership qualities aside, it also has to be remembered that so much of Sunderland’s play goes through the Teessider.

Ever since Cattermole’s season essentially came to a premature conclusion in November, the middle of the park was a dilemma for O’Neill.

Whether with two or three central cogs in Sunderland’s side, he couldn’t stumble upon upon a combination which proved consistently effective.

Actually, O’Neill’s last selection in the middle of the park didn’t do too badly, with Craig Gardner again one of the few Sunderland players showing the appropriate intent in his first midfield start since December’s defeat at Old Trafford.

Perhaps it is because Gardner has suffered the agony of relegation before, but during the first half he was almost alone in ruffling United and shrugging off the blow from Robin van Persie’s deflected goal.

The midfield problems have seen Sunderland become far too predictable opponents for their Premier League peers.

Performances have been flat, wins garnered largely through huff and puff rather than total domination.

That has largely been the case since last March’s FA Cup quarter-final defeat to Everton, but then perhaps that was inevitable after O’Neill’s initial impact.

A lack of quality was always going to tell eventually. The momentum of motivation faded.

This is the second dramatic slide Sunderland have produced during the campaign and this time, it prompted a far greater array of theories on the disappearance of O’Neill’s Midas touch.

There was perhaps substance to talk that O’Neill wasn’t the manager of old and wasn’t the same without right-hand man John Robertson.

Whispers were beginning to emerge too from inside the camp that something was badly wrong.

But O’Neill remained determined to revitalise the club he supported as a boy and was perfectly right to suggest he needed to shape the side to his own liking.

His big mistake though was January.

O’Neill wasn’t necessarily to blame numerically. One potential recruit fell through, while the amount of further funds available to him from Short remains an unknown.

But the three players O’Neill did sign have been unable to hit the ground running. In the case of Kader Mangane, he hasn’t contributed at all.

The summer offered the potential for O’Neill to undertake wholesale renovation of the side, in the manner of Bruce.

Short was more cautious though.

He didn’t want to see more of his millions wasted and was subjecting his investment to more and more scrutiny, from the scouting network, to the coaching of Sunderland’s players.

Had that resulted in O’Neill leaving the Stadium of Light in May, then it would have held far less surprise than Saturday’s shock sacking.

But Sunderland undoubtedly do need an overhaul of the playing squad in the summer.

Supporters knew, reporters knew and, more than anyone, O’Neill knew.

To publicly air it prior to the Norwich game a fortnight ago was an unwise move on O’Neill’s part though. No player is going to give his all when he knows he is likely to be leaving two months down the line.

Di Canio must raise these players and he is renowned as a brutal training ground drill-master.

That produced victories for lower-league players. Whether it can do so for their Premier League counterparts is another matter.

But the training regime under O’Neill was one that had been questioned by members of the squad.

Before anything else, Di Canio, the supremely gifted former West Ham striker, needs to create a goal threat among his charges.

With Johnson and Sessegnon misfiring against United and McClean showing plenty of industry, yet little end product, the service into Danny Graham was scant at best.

Graham used his physique well to win several flick-ons and never let his head drop in a thankless task up front.

But the service was essentially non-existent.

Sunderland don’t boast a goal-scoring difficult-to-handle customer like their relegation rivals in the shape of a Christian Benteke or Arouna Kone. All the Black Cats can boast is targetmen who have consumed around £13million of Short’s money.

Clearly, by the very nature of appointing a head coach, Short does not believe that another huge sum out of his bank account is the way forward for this club.

He thinks some of the existing players can be polished, certainly sufficiently to keep Sunderland in the Premier League.

Whether Di Canio can achieve that is a moot point.

But already, with vice-chairman David Miliband resigning within seconds of Di Canio’s appointment being confirmed, the Italian has proved that it ain’t gonna be a dull season anymore.