It is the £10m question that has perplexed two Sunderland managers and a sky blue title winner: how do you unlock Adam Johnson’s undoubted potential?
Gus Poyet is the latest Black Cat to come up with a cunning plan to turn Johnson’s imagination and enterprise into consistent end product – and the substance of his plan for Johnson reveals a lot about his vision for Sunderland.
While Martin O’Neill had asked Johnson to play as a stereotypical ‘chalk-on-the-boots’ type of winger, Poyet is more interested in him being flexible and fluent – in Johnson moving between the lines. In short, he wants to add a dash of unpredictability to Johnson’s game.
It is little surprise that he has struggled. Poyet’s blueprint is the third set of instructions that Johnson has had since he made the much-heralded move from Manchester City, and patience must be shown.
The Black Cats manager concurs. He says: “I think Adam has got something that not many players have got in this team. That’s why he played for Manchester City and that’s why he’s so important.
“To exploit his game and to get him to do better we have to do better as a team. I’m not trying to defend him now but the situation with these type of players is ‘Just give him the ball and do whatever you want and produce’. We think they can go past five players and if you do it you’re a genius, if you don’t you’re not performing very well.
“We need to do better. We need to make sure we put him into situations where it’s a little bit easier to go and attack, get inside and do other things. That’s through playing football the way I hope I want us to play. That will happen slowly.
“We need to make sure we use him in the right place, either on the left or the right because he can play on both sides. There are plenty of things that we can do more as a staff to help him play better. I’m sure that slowly he will start understanding when he needs to stay wide, when he needs to come in, when he needs to pass the ball and when he needs to dribble. There are plenty of things involved in his game. I think at the moment people are just asking him to just go ahead and run (with the ball).
“In Spain we would say ‘If you open the doors in the stadium he will keep running out of the ground’. We need to help him because he has got everything to be successful, he is one of the main players of the team, but he has to do better.
“It is the same with the strikers when someone doesn’t score. We talked about Jozy last week. Let’s put him into a situation whereby he can score. Then if he doesn’t get in the box it’s Jozy. We can’t complain.”
Poyet wants Johnson to take some inspiration from his former team-mates’ – and points to the winger situation at City as proof that the system does work. He said: “I don’t think Adam is frustrated but I think he’s just used to getting the ball and running at people. Now we’re trying different things. We’re trying to give him different messages, we’re trying to tell him how and when to use the ball in different situations.
“Football is not a square, it is not forwards and backwards like a machine. There are things that you need to do. If you watch Manchester City, you will see. Who plays left wing for them? Who knows? They interchange.
“It could be Silva, it could be Clichy, Kolarov. Now the right-back of the opposition doesn’t know who to mark. Then you have a problem! You need to be spectacular, you need to adapt to the players in front of you because it is never the same. During the game if you’re always the same, you deal with it but if they change constantly you need to be very, very good to deal with it.”
Even with the international class of Emanuele Giaccherini breathing down his neck, Johnson is likely to play against his old club.
There are no such reassurances for the other players in the team though, with Poyet facing big decisions around his forward line. Jozy Altidore performed admirably in midweek – setting up two goals – but Steven Fletcher adds the punch and firepower that the American has yet to discover in his return to the Premier League.
Both could play, of course, but that would offer Sunderland’s midfield little protection against genuine gold-plated opponents in the form of Manuel Pelligrini’s City. Not for the first time since he took over, Poyet has some big calls to make at training this morning.
He admitted: “We have big decisions. We will decide on Saturday. Sometimes you have to wait for things to happen – in my short career as a manager sometimes it changes. On Saturday morning things will become clear to me but the whole plan can go away in two minutes.
“It’s good that I’ve got options. Fletcher needed the rest in midweek because he was giving us everything. We will see how we play on Sunday. I will not give too much but I will consider everything. I’m not scared about making any decisions. It’s just a decision of what I think is better on that day and for that game.
“One or two will be very disappointed because if there were 12 to 13 who expected to play last week, this week it is 15 or 16. The more players are expecting to play, the more frustration you get from them. That’s my decision, it’s nothing to do with them.”