The Agenda: Five simple things Gustavo Poyet has done to transform Sunderland

Gustavo Poyet took over a Sunderland team heading for relegation. Now they are utterly transformed. Stuart Rayner asks how

Action Images / Ed Sykes Sunderland head coach Gus Poyet
Sunderland head coach Gus Poyet

On October 8, Gustavo Poyet took on an impossible task.

He inherited a hopeless, demoralised squad playing poor football.

That, at least, was what the Premier League table said, with one point from seven games.

Poyet’s first match, a 4-0 defeat at Swansea City, seemed to confirm predecessor Paolo Di Canio was only part of a much bigger problem.

That was 107 days ago. It feels like an absolute eternity.

Before we get carried away, it is worth remembering Sunderland are still only two points above the Premier League relegation zone, but whatever their fate this season it is impossible to agree with Di Canio’s ridiculous comment of little more than a week ago that the Black Cats are no better off without him.

Carry on in this vein and Poyet ought to be a very strong contender for manager of the year.

How did that happen?

NO MORE MR NASTY GUY

It turns out you do not have to be an utter tyrant (there are other words, but not in a family newspaper) to be a successful football manager.

He may not always be the fourth official’s best friend but, away from the touchline, Poyet is an intelligent and friendly person.

Poyet’s passing style of play relies on confidence, so the constant public berating of players which characterised Di Canio’s disastrous reign ended, and the squad has thrived.

It is noticeable how often they speak highly of his human qualities.

TAKING RESPONSIBILITY

Poyet gets things wrong. Sometimes he does not pick the right team, occasionally the wrong tactics.

But there is always a mea culpa from the Uruguayan when it happens, and he has a handy knack of being able to put things right during a game. Many is the match turned by his substitutions, and seven goals have come from those he has introduced.

Poyet is officially Sunderland’s head coach, but after winning the power struggle with director of football Roberto De Fanti he is now actually the manager.

Poyet decides who comes and goes and will take the blame or credit for those decisions.

KEEPING IT SIMPLE

It could be a criticism, but the fact Poyet has only one way of playing has turned into a positive.

The former midfielder is a passionate preacher of patient passing football in a 4-1-4-1 structure.

No matter how versatile, players are not messed around. Those that took to the field at St James’ Park were playing the roles they have held in just about every Poyet game this season. Everyone knows what is expected of them. Debutant Liam Bridcutt looked like a man who had been playing for this team for ages on Saturday because he had.

It is just that for the first three years they wore blue-and-white stripes and were called Brighton and Hove Albion.

BEING OPEN-MINDED

For someone with such a dogmatic approach to tactics, Poyet is remarkably open-minded about who is asked to carry them out.

He preaches a very cultured Spanish style, far removed from the typical English crash, bang, wallop approach epitomised by Lee Cattermole.

Bridcutt’s arrival to anchor the midfield may signal the end for Cattermole – although his coach insists otherwise – but Poyet was not too snobbish to realise the Teessider could do a solid job until the Scot signed.

Like Cattermole, Phil Bardsley had been exiled to the reserves by Di Canio and, unlike him, had not been allowed back when Poyet arrived.

Some will probably never forgive Bardsley for what he did – lying on the floor of a casino covered in cash was bad, mocking his team’s opening-day defeat much worse – but judging by the reception the away fans gave him on Saturday, they are the quiet minority as he has again become an integral part of the team.

GETTING LUCKY

No matter how good you are, you always need a bit of luck.

Poyet has been fortunate Wes Brown was close to full fitness when he took over, and doubly lucky Brown turned down Di Canio’s summer offer of a pay-off. The fragile Mancunian, arguably England’s best natural central defender, has been fit for every game since returning so impressively at Hull City.

That match also saw first-choice goalkeeper Keiren Westwood suffer concussion. Vito Mannone has been one of this season’s best-performing Premier League goalkeepers since.

Sunderland’s defensive record since the pair came on at Hull is played 20-and-a-half, conceded 20 (as opposed to 24 in 11-and-a-half before).

Journalists

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