No way Sunderland boss Gus Poyet will play the tinkerman

Consistency of selection and style is key for Sunderland boss. Chief Sports Writer Mark Douglas reports

Sunderland boss Gus Poyet
Sunderland boss Gus Poyet

It sounds almost too twee to be an insult, but for a time it was the worst kind of baggage that a Premier League football manager could carry.

Former Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri was England’s first ‘Tinkerman’ and it was not a moniker that was handed to him as a sign of affection. What was at first a quirky, idiosyncratic strategy imported from Serie A became a kamikaze tendency when he made three bizarre substitutions during a Champions League game in Monaco to try and alter a game that seemed to be under control. 3-1 down from the first leg, the Blues were unable to overturn the advantage and wasted a fantastic opportunity to make Europe’s showpiece final.

Unsurprisingly, he did not last much longer as Roman Abramovich failed to appreciate the subtleties of Ranieri’s tactical power-play. The Italian has not worked in England since.

Are you surprised? A tendency to alter starting line-ups on a game-by-game basis flew in the face of one of British football’s unwritten rules: a settled side is a more effective side.

Remember Liverpool had once topped the First Division utilising a squad of just 14 players in the mid-sixties, an ideal that many within the game still strive for. It makes sense too: familiarity breeds certainty and there is a logic to sticking with a settled side that understands an effective system to triumph in a game.

Ranieri saw it differently. “In Italy we are used to moving tactically and change system in every match,” he recalled in an interview last year.

“Do you remember? People called me ‘The Tinkerman’ because I changed every time but in Italy we are used to change.

“These days it is important tactically to change because the opponent knows you very well and if you have some players who change tactically that is important because you can surprise them, maybe only for five minutes but in that five minutes you can score a goal.

“Now a lot of managers are doing this.”

They are, but don’t try and count his former pupil Gus Poyet as one. Although the Sunderland boss faces the most pivotal week of his Wearside managerial career, the temptation to turn tinkerman will be easily resisted.

For a start, Poyet used to hate being removed from the Chelsea line-up when he thought he was doing well. Offered no explanation, rhyme or reason for the changes, the Uruguayan would simply stew in his own juices until the next match.

And that is why the core of the Sunderland team that takes the field against Chelsea tonight will be pretty close to the side that Poyet hopes will lead them off the Premier League’s endangered list in 2014.

Forget rotation or removing front-line players, Poyet intends to field a team strong enough to win both games. Or that is theory, anyway. The Sunderland boss explained: “I am looking for consistency. I’m not going to say I will never change it because that would be a liar. There will not be massive changes though.

“I used to hate it as a player when managers changed it. I absolutely hated the rotation system. I hated it. I didn’t like to feel like I was at my best in one game then in the next I was sitting on the bench for no reason. Somebody thought I needed a rest when I didn’t.

Even almost a decade on, Poyet cannot understand the mentality of the tinkermen. But then, he never sought to knock on the manager’s door when he was picking up his Chelsea wage.

“I never asked why I play so I never went to see the manager to ask why I was not playing. That was never my mentality,” he said.

That is not to say that there won’t be alterations to the Sunderland line-up as they look to book a place in the last four of the Capital One Cup.

The Black Cats played in a physically draining game at Upton Park on Saturday and Poyet knows that for some, two games in four days will be too much to ask. The likes of Wes Brown, for example, are still being treated with something like kid gloves and Poyet can ill afford to lose such an important player as his team head into a make-or-break festive period.

So Poyet will do something that Ranieri never did: talk to his squad. With all the sports science data that is available to Premier League managers that may seem a mite outdated but he feels that “communication and honesty” are a sound foundation for solving his selection dilemmas.

“I have to be realistic. I talk to the players and make sure they are as honest as we are,” he said.

“When you ask a player how he feels, the honesty and communication is important.

“You know how he is and how he will be when he goes in to the game. If communication and honesty works then we will get the best out of the players for real.

“If you are strong then you can play every game. Ramires looks like he has played every game and he doesn’t have a problem does he? He is a machine. He is up and down. There are players who can play Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday. Honesty is important.”

For Poyet, the Capital One Cup can be a useful distraction from the ills of the unforgiving relegation battle.

For while some will point to the demotion that befell Birmingham and Wigan in seasons that they won silverware, they are not necessarily typical of teams that have established winning patterns.

Wigan, for example, simply ran out of games in their battle to beat the drop while Birmingham suffered a wretched run of injuries that had little do with a Cup campaign that demanded just three games out of them in the calendar year that they went down.

For Poyet, the Cup has already brought a success. It was against Southampton in the last round when he first deployed the pressing, passing style that has made Sunderland into a more competitive side that – finally – seem to have some sort of identity.

He still has to find the players who can play the system most effectively, but it is a start.

“We know better now. I can make better decisions,” he said.

“I am getting close to knowing my best team but we try to play the same way home and away. Here we have to make sure we do our bit first. Then we will pay attention to what others are doing. But the system will more or less be the same thing.”

The only thing Poyet is interested in changing, it seems, is Sunderland’s losing mentality.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer