One thing Gus Poyet has regularly done since arriving on Wearside, is continue to surprise people with his team selections. They’re normally just subtle changes here and there, but often relevant ones. Players who seemed like certainties for the starting eleven drop down to the bench and players seemingly out of form find themselves starting games.
I’ve lost count of the amount of times we’ve sat on either the Wise Men Say or Into The Light podcasts thinking our predictions for the upcoming team selections were nailed on, only for our collective eyebrows to raise to the roof on the revelation of the team sheet before the following game.
His confidence in his favoured system. however, has rarely wavered. When Sunderland beat Southampton in a League Cup tie last season, it signalled the tactical change for the future of this team. We suddenly started keeping possession of the football like we saw other sides do and the employment of a three man midfield seemed long overdue for some of us. It was very un-Sunderland like. It brought the word “identity” into our vocabulary as fans and from that point the gaffer’s footballing philosophy has been held together with a glue formed by a strong faith in his own philosophy.
There was that brush with a pretty disastrous looking 352 in exception to this, but more on that later.
Now it seems a home defeat to Hull has put a massive dent into the fans’ trust in our new found identity. People were accepting the home draws, and even the defeat to Arsenal, for the greater good. Because of the trust Poyet earned last season, cup run, great escape and all, there was a patience afforded to what he was trying to achieve.
It may have been the lifeless home loss to Liverpool that surfaced the squabbles over where this team was heading, but had we defeated a woeful looking Hull side on Boxing Day then you sense patience would still be a little thicker on Wearside.
It brought about the whole 442 debate again. Despite our reservations about the said formation on the podcast, there’s obviously a place for it if used correctly. If I was a Man City fan I’d demand it for most Premier League games! With the central midfielders and wingers Sunderland have, though? Not for me.
I just think it’s too simplistic of a formation for fans and journalists to demand when your side isn’t scoring goals. And in my eyes, there was no way Gus Poyet was about to abandon his system just because of the arrival of Jermain Defoe – after all Steven Fletcher never had things shifted around to tailor his needs of playing in a front two.
Right? Not so.
But far from being disappointed on hearing Gus had said he needed to find a way to play two strikers yesterday, it made me look forward to speaking with him more than ever. That information had been given to the TV and national press before he came through to speak to us. It genuinely fascinates me as to how he’ll make it work and I couldn’t wait to ask him.
It was certainly a delight to be in his company yesterday, from the moment he walked and payed everyone individual attention, including acknowledging my week’s worth of facial hair growth, giving it the thumbs up and calling it “nice”. Furthermore, if we’re to believe what we’re told, the impact of the transfer has been similar on the players in the dressing room.
Remembering that we saw that change to three at the back last season, there’s an immediate assumption that it’s something that could be repeated in order to play two upfront this time around. Ironically, it was a 5-1 thrashing at today’s opponents Spurs that symbolises that unsuccessful experiment to a lot of fans. That was where many feel it was exposed.
“I reject that”, Poyet said. “People only remember that we played five at the back – but funnily enough when we changed to four, we were at 2-1 at 72 minutes. So in the last 17 minutes we conceded three and it looks like everything was terrible. When it goes well it looks fantastic and when it goes bad I’m responsible. It would’ve been easy for me to stay five at the back – Lee (Cattermole) and Liam (Bridcutt) played together that game, try and hold the 2-1 and see if you nick a corner and you score a goal. But I thought it was the right time to change”.
He has a point, certainly. I’m not sure I’ve avoided relating that disastrous result directly to that particular formation. The obvious worry about three centre halves for me would be the lack of pace, though it doesn’t seem it’s on the cards anyway. I wondered if that was what had been worked on this week in training. “Not yet. We started with the proper English 442 and we’re gonna go slowly into other options”.
Those hoping for a throwback to the Peter Reid days are likely to be disappointed, however. As well as his regular dismissal of playing an orthodox 442, it’s worth pointing out the comment was accompanied by a huge grin, seemingly dictated by the irony of what he was saying. He had moments earlier joked it looked “terrible” at this early stage. As he continued it became more clear where we’re likely to go with this.
“You can play diamond, you can play three and a little bit of flow. You can play five like Liverpool when they played Suarez and Sturridge. (We have) options. It depends on how we adapt and how we feel on the pitch and we’ll make a decision but, without any doubt, the main thing is to have two strikers upfront”.
It’s testament to Jermain Defoe’s stature and standing in the game that the manager (or head coach as he keeps reminding us) is prepared to rip it up and almost start again. Yet, as he says himself, “we can not train for 3 months and one day you play and it’s there. The thing is how we adapt to the new one (system) and the quality, and the personnel”.
It’s easy to be cynical and suggest that these actions are made out of some sort of desperation; that he’s rolling the dice. But he’s long stood by his demand for a new striker, we’ve heard him send the message to Lee Congerton loud and clear many times post-match. And he acknowledged as much.
With a shrug of the shoulders Poyet admitted, “I was asking for quality upfront and now there is no excuses. The responsibility is always on the manager and when you’ve got the players you need, even more so. Now it’s up to me and up to the players to win football games and find a way. There’s not gonna be anymore complaints whatsoever”.
That’s as emphatic a statement as it gets.
Maybe it’s one that will come back and bite him on the backside. Indeed, one thing that’s unavoidable when speaking to Gus is his inability to keep his emotions in check, he can rarely hold back his thoughts on anything he’s asked.
Our own Gareth Barker summed this up brilliantly when he suggested you go from being in the clouds with him when we win, to being on the floor with him when we lose.
I feel we’re really about to see what he’s made of as a coach. It’s one thing getting a group of players to buy into what you’re all about, but it’s a different challenge altogether getting them to evolve again, this time within a corridor of uncertainty and heading for a destination you aren’t yet sure of yourself. Burnley is the next home game in the league and the need to win it could be huge should Sunderland come away with nothing from White Hart Lane today.
That’s the game Poyet is hoping it will all come together, with a generous looking cup tie against Fulham being the perfect opportunity for the players and fans alike to acquaint themselves to the changes beforehand. If that sounds simplistic it’s because Gus made it sound so, “try one of the options against Fulham, keep training the following week to make sure that when we get to Burnley everything is clear and that we can go with the new formation or system or whatever you can call it”.
He really has talked himself out of making many future excuses.
Bring it on.
* I was speaking with Gus Poyet on behalf of Sun FM.