The Agenda: The tactical tweaks which could benefit Sunderland

So far Gustavo Poyet has overlooked his most creative players. Stuart Rayner thinks tomorrow is an ideal time to change

Nigel Roddis/Getty Images Cabral (L) and Ki Sung-Yueng of Sunderland during a training session
Cabral (L) and Ki Sung-Yueng of Sunderland during a training session

It boils the blood of North East football folk to see their clubs writing off silverware as a luxury they cannot afford.

So it should. Newcastle United have not had a major trophy in the cabinet since 1955, Sunderland 1973. With so many clubs turning their noses up at knockout football because they have more pressing concerns elsewhere, every Premier League club has a chance of reaching Wembley, and even of lifting a trophy there, if they just commit to the competition. Not just top-flight teams either – ask the likes of Bradford City and Cardiff City.

But Sunderland’s League Cup tie at home to Southampton might actually be a good time for a little experimentation.

Three vastly contrasting games into his Black Cats career, Gustavo Poyet is still looking for the right combination. The Uruguayan is a football purist, yet for one reason or another, he has largely done without his two most creative players.

Director of football Roberto De Fanti’s summer shopping has rightly been castigated – though too many mistakenly seem to think Paolo Di Canio was the sole instigator – but he has unearthed two players who have made a quick impact.

Ki Sung-Yeung has played 20 minutes of football under Poyet, Emanuele Giaccherini 61. With Lee Cattermole suspended tomorrow, and without the pressing need for points, Poyet can afford to give both a go.

Without them Sunderland have looked desperately short of
creativity, averaging just seven shots a game. In all three matches the opposition have seen more of the ball. Their solitary victory, at home to Newcastle United, owed more to one astonishing Fabio Borini finish than the building of any pressure.

For Poyet to succeed, that will have to change. He aspires to the brand of football played by teams like Swansea City, Barcelona and Spain. Possession is king.

There is room for players who can win the ball, as he made clear in his staunch defence of Cattermole after his red card at Hull City. But silk is needed alongside the skill. At the moment it has not been forthcoming.

The Wearsiders actually played very well in Saturday’s second half at the KC Stadium, but it was very definitely a one-off game.

With Cattermole and Andrea Dossena sent off for brainless tackles in first-half stoppage time, Poyet needed a more pragmatic plan for the second 45 minutes.

Keiren Westwood had already gone off, dazed and confused, so when Adam Johnson and Wes Brown were introduced for the second half, Poyet had played all his cards. Brown came on to shore up and organise a three-man defence, Johnson to support Steven Fletcher from the four-man midfield.

Both did their jobs very well. Hull lacked the guile to break down Sunderland, resorting to long-range efforts Vito Mannone kept out on the rare occasions they were not blocked by eager defenders or simply off target.

Johnson provided the thrust demanded, and might have snatched a most unlikely point had it not been for a good save from Steve Harper. But Sunderland’s chances came from one of two sources – free-kicks and punts downfield. Sometimes it was a combination of both. Johnson’s came direct from Mannone’s boot. It was effective, if unrewarded, but would not have been against most Premier League sides. On Saturday’s evidence Hull looked a long way from the top-half team the league table claims they are. Route one was a path Poyet was forced down in an emergency, not one he will look to tread under normal circumstances.

Even the coach would surely have liked to have seen more of Ki and Giaccherini.

Ki is on loan from Swansea City, so could not play against them in Poyet’s first game. Giaccherini started it, but did not finish it. Both were left on the bench for the Wear-Tyne derby as Poyet
recognised the need for a more forceful style of play, and more experience of North East derbies. Having won that game, sweeping changes in East Yorkshire would have sent a bad message, so both stayed on the bench. Circumstances dictated they could not leave it.

Over-riding priority though that is, there could be more at stake than simply getting Sunderland playing the way their coach wants. Stories have been emanating from Italy of Inter’s interest in signing Giaccherini in January. As is his habit, Poyet’s Press conference comments when asked about it were slightly
contradictory. He will know if an Italy international is struggling to get regular football in a World Cup year, Giaccherini will surely want to leave when the transfer window re-opens.

As one of the few successes of an exhaustive 14-man recruitment drive (though others may blossom later on, as often happens with foreign players), it would be a real kick in the teeth to lose him.

Accommodating Giaccherini and Ki together is the next problem. Ki is a central midfielder, and a good one. He looks more suited to a three, but would probably be fine in a two. Giaccherini’s best position is in the hole but he did little to push his case there in south Wales.

Maybe the second half at Hull pointed at a way forward. Poyet (pictured left) is eager to build from the base of his first Sunderland clean sheet, and with Brown in a back three, they looked much more capable of getting one.

Going 3-5-2 would allow Poyet the option of accommodating Jack Colback, Giaccherini, Cattermole, Ki and another under-used player, Craig Gardner, while still allowing two centre-forwards. Colback and Gardner would have to play out of position, but wing-back is less alien to them than the full-back roles they have filled so often recently. With such an unbalanced squad (only three full-backs, one of whom is now suspended), he may have to compromise.

It is a shape likeminded coaches Roberto Martinez and Brendan Rogers have had success with, and lends itself to greater control of possession. Ultimately there could be better ways to fit Ki and Giaccherini into Sunderland’s future plans, but the Wearsiders are unlikely to get a better chance to try something new this year.


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