Sunderland v Spurs preview: Gus Poyet's balancing act still needs work

Coach Gustavo Poyet admits Sunderland have not yet found the right balance ahead of tonight's visit from Tottenham Hotspur

PA Wire Sunderland manager Gustavo Poyet
Sunderland manager Gustavo Poyet

Try as he might, Gustavo Poyet has not managed to get the balance quite right as Sunderland coach.

Seven days ago his Black Cats were last on Match of the Day, on Wednesday they were just as obvious a choice to kick the programme off. As tends to be the case, somewhere in the middle would be ideal.

At Villa Park seven days ago, Sunderland were firmly mired in defensive mode.

Helped by Aston Villa’s Christian Benteke having apparently put his shooting boots on the wrong feet, they were a model of boring solidity. There might well have been a few smiling faces among the travelling contingent but nobody will have rushed home to add the DVD to their Christmas lists.

It was only Sunderland’s second clean sheet of the season, but they looked like the kind of killjoys who regularly spoilt opposition forwards’ days for fun. Had they been capable of hitting the proverbial cow’s backside with a banjo, a first away win of the season would have been theirs. Unfortunately, as Emanuele Giaccherini’s miss-of-the-season contender proved, they were not.

If you had told anyone in the away end that day – or indeed anyone who had seen Poyet’s team in recent weeks – Sunderland would score three times against Chelsea on Wednesday then when you finally persuaded them it was not a cruel joke, they would have gone away to celebrate a famous victory. Somehow it did not work like that, though.

Chelsea scored four – or rather they found the net three times while Phil Bardsley happlessly converted the other Jose Mourinho’s men needed for a thrilling win.

No wonder Poyet jokes he does not expect to have any hair by the end of this season. At least it sounded like a joke.

Against a Tottenham Hotspur side who have struggled almost as badly in front of goal this season (Europa League group games against laughable opposition notwithstanding), the aim must be to apply the midweek cutting edge to the defensive discipline from Birmingham. If only it were that easy.

The good news, at least from an entertainment perspective, is that Poyet is prepared to err on the side of risk to get what he wants.

“I need to find a balance,” Sunderland’s Uruguayan coach freely admits. “We need to defend well but at the same time to score goals. Sometimes there are games in a normal situation when a draw is good enough and we’d take it for whatever reasons.

“At Aston VIlla we needed to be clever and we got the result. Maybe we could have gone and got three points but we got one. If you get another point here and there you’re still collecting points so there’s a moment that, even if I don’t like it, I’d take 4-3 the other way.”

Encouraging though it was, the brutal truth is that the point at Villa Park was not enough. A look at the league table will soon tell you that. Over the course of the last seven days Crystal Palace have won one, lost one, to put just a chink of daylight between themselves and the bottom-of-the-table Black Cats.

Times are becoming increasingly desperate and so, he suggests, will be Poyet’s methods.

“We need to win, so there could be a moment in the game where we’re drawing and we’re playing well, now it’s not like, ‘Let’s keep it at that and take a point,’” he argues. “No, we need to take a risk and go and win it. sometimes that will make you lose, but I prefer to win one and lose one than get two draws.”

The football has undoubtedly been far better since Poyet took the reins from caretaker manager Kevin Ball. Results have picked up too, but nothing like as much. Plaudits are all well and good, but with only eight from their first 14 games, Sunderland cannot afford to keep dropping points.

“At the time it’s okay, but if it happens three or four times then you get sick of it,” Poyet says of the acclaim for his beaten sides. “But the better you perform, the more chance you have of winning.”

There are positives, though, and one is that anyone who is anyone in the Premier League will have played at the Stadium of Light by tonight. Everton will be the only top-seven team not to have graced Wearside with their presence. It should make points-gathering in the second half of the season that much easier.

“If we do well against the lower teams we’ve got coming up after Spurs we’ve got a great chance,” Poyet concurs. “We need to win our 11 (remaining home) games to give ourselves a chance.

“You know how nice it is to be in a position where it’s up to you, but if you want to be safe then we need to beat those (bottom-half) teams at home. It’s not negotiable.

“It’s not like a wish list of getting a point here and a point there. We’ve got a chance if we do that and those games will be incredible, we need to win and win, nothing else.”

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