Just where are Sunderland going in terms of style and substance? Can the fans really get behind conscious attempts to suck the life out of games? Can the players?
The loss to Southampton last week made for quite uncomfortable viewing. Not as uncomfortable as watching the same side put eight past us last season, but in the sense that our game plan was so clearly designed to squeeze the life out of the contest, that it ensured it wasn’t much of a spectacle for the home fans. That’s for Sure (Bruce 2009, 2010, 2011).
If a Southampton midfielder had the ball in an area away from our penalty box, then our midfielders stood off and allowed them to knock it about. Even when the visiting forwards probed and made a little more progress, there was a solid defensive shape evident and generally our back line coped with it pretty well.
So when Yan M’Villa needlessly went to ground in the box; something you’d expect a school kid to be wise enough not to do, I was furious. Livid. Gutted. Derby day defeat-like annoyed. Sitting and enduring the defensive style was difficult as a fan, let’s be honest about that. Indeed one of the hardest things about being a football fan is having the ability or inclination to view things in the long term and think about the big picture.
You’ve paid to be at a game and you want to be entertained.
So when all of that defensive hard work was undone by a moment of stupidity, it’s difficult for a spectator to sit and suddenly accept that it was worth wasting a couple of hours of their lives for; just because you understand what the tactical strategy was. If we’re gonna lose the game anyway then give us something more aesthetically pleasing, right? It’s a straightforward theory really.
Yet I think we really do need to offer the new manager a little patience in that respect.
I’ve a feeling we’re about to see how many fans can get on board with this style of play, because when Martin O’Neill did similar in his final few months, attendances started to dip.
In Big Sam’s defence, Southampton are one of a few sides in the league who are light-years away from us ability-wise and being expansive against them would have resulted in a horror show. They move the ball around with haste and purpose and if we’re to have any chance of ever building a platform that provides us with hope we’ll get there ourselves one day, realism has to prevail first.
There’s a reason Martin O’Neill, Gus Poyet and now Sam Allardyce are taking a defensive view on things. There’s a reason neither Dick Advocaat nor Paolo Di Canio lasted five minutes in the job once they opened us up and couldn’t accept we weren’t good enough for it.
Of course it’s alarming that all these managers have somehow ended up coming to the same conclusion, despite four of them investing into the squad separately. Those four can to take some of the blame for our current predicament. As do many more people, obviously.
We all know what’s been coming for years.
Back to last week specifically, and it’s fair to comment that the side’s passing and inventiveness was utterly woeful. The fans are within their right to question this in isolation to the defensive mindset, I reckon. There’s not a chance in hell that they were ordered to keep a solid defensive shape, allow the opposition to play in certain areas, but then just hand over possession cheaply when awarded it.
Yes, you may be deeper than you like and there will be less obvious attacking routes available as a result, but ha’way!
As the hopeful punts toward Fletcher continued to come back at us, the players should have injected some of their own game intelligence into the situation. Hold the ball for longer, mix up runs a bit more, and just try and be a bit more composed generally.
While we may all have to get used to rigid formations and meticulous game plans, it’s fair enough we expect the players to take some responsibility for themselves and use their own initiative in certain scenarios.
Maybe history tells us that expectation is little too far-fetched, on reflection.
What a mess. The joys.
*This piece was initially written and reported for The Durham Times.