I must admit, I have always had a bit of a passion for analysis. You may mistake that for me being a bit of a conceited pedant, but I assure you, if I am then it is as well as being an enthusiastic analyst, not instead of. So, like the rest of us, I set myself the task of trying to figure out just what the hell Steve Bruce is doing wrong right now, and I hereby concede defeat. Because in order to figure out what is going wrong, one must first ascertain at which point the course of events deviates from the plan, and for the life of me I can't figure out just what Bruce's plan actually is.
Football clubs and football managers who enjoy success, whether it is outright success or merely relative, tend to do so whilst establishing and perpetuating an identity. Football history is littered with famous examples of this, such as Sir Alf Ramsey's 'Wingless Wonders', Liverpool's 'pass and move' philosophy upon which an entire football dynasty was built, the 'Total Football' of Rinus Michels' great Ajax and Holland teams, and Don Revie's 'dirty' Leeds United, to name but a few. Modern football has no shortage of examples either. When you are playing Arsenal, you know they will focus on dominating the ball. You know a Tony Pulis or Sam Allardyce team will bombard your penalty area with high balls and giant centre halves. A feature of Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United over the years has been their appetite for pressing the opposition high up the pitch and attacking at pace when they win the ball in advanced areas. A Martin O'Neill team will be quick, mobile, be spearheaded by some physical presence up-front, and inexplicably contain Emile Heskey. Their success is generally derived from having a system designed by the manager and executed by the players he has brought to the club to fulfill a specific role within it.
So just what are the hallmarks of the archetypal Steve Bruce team? He has been here almost 2 seasons now and whatever the results are doing, I don't think it is unreasonable to expect there to be at least the first signs of a well-drilled system beginning to manifest itself on the pitch. Well, there doesn't seem to be one. Shortly after he arrived at the club in 2009, Bruce was advocating direct football and told the Sunderland Echo "and if that means launching it, then fair enough". Okay then. It isn't to everyone's taste but it's a start and lets get on with it. A year after that, our big lad was sold and replaced with Asamoah Gyan, with Bruce hailing the Ghanian's ability to lead the line as a lone striker and hinting at a desire to emulate the systems used by Arsenal and Chelsea to bring the best out of him. Bruce's insistence that Kieran Richardson commit himself to the full back position added further weight to the suggestion that surrounding Gyan with naturally attack-minded players all over the pitch was the direction in which we were heading.
If that was the plan at the start of this season, then the season itself has shown precious little sign of it. Whilst Kieran Richardson signed a new contract under the proviso it was primarily to play full back and accepted the number three shirt to underline his commitment to Bruce's plan, all it seemingly took was Phil Bardsley being a canny lad and producing a few steady displays in the position to persuade Bruce himself to abandon it completely. Good players, footballers of good pedigree such as Sulley Muntari and Stephane Sessegnon, have appeared to have been brought to the club without any specific role for them in mind, which again provides further questions over the existence of any kind of planning from the manager. This season has seen precious little tactical consistency at all from Sunderland. 4-4-2 one week, 4-5-1 then next, the odd foray into 5-4-1 down at Stoke. We attempted to utilise three different systems in the first half alone at Manchester City and Richardson has started games in no less than five different positions this season. Perhaps even more worrying, though, is that there has been even less consistency in the way we try and play our football. Sometimes it is very direct, sometimes tippy-tappy triangles in midfield are noticeably attempted, sometimes the channels are attacked early, sometimes, like last Saturday, they seemingly try and play a different sport completely.
I appreciate, of course, that losing Darren Bent has knocked us for six a bit and injuries have really disrupted our season. I am not here to complain about results (traditionally, for a Sunderland fan, that is what weekends are for...). My point is simply that by this stage of his tenure and especially given the tremendous backing he has enjoyed from above, it is surely time that Steve Bruce was stamping his identity on his team. By now, a clear and deliberate system of play should be emerging, reinforced and fine-tuned by regular practice on the training ground. In our last two home games, we have been visited by teams with new managers, and both were considerably more organised and comfortable in their systems than we were and, tellingly, both played us off the park. Both encompassed the identity of their manager too, despite those managers having a fraction of the time Bruce has enjoyed to achieve it.
This is not some kind of anti-Bruce agenda on my part. For the record, I back Steve Bruce all the way. I am certainly not attempting to justify calls to have him removed from his position. Had we picked up a few more points lately then it is likely I would still be asking the same questions. It may simply be a case that there being no single plan actually is the plan. Tactical versatility is an asset to any football club. Whether it can provide the basis for success, however, or whether it is merely an auxiliary part of it, a 'plan B' if you like, is an interesting point for debate. Personally I believe it to be the latter. I believe you get your basics in place first, you practise them, you get yourself in a position where you can rely upon them, and then you start to look at what you can add to them. At the moment it would seem that those basics have been neglected.
Recent results have been poor, and the manner of the performances that accompanied them even more so. There is simply no getting away from that and trust me when I say I have tried. Given the backing Steve Bruce has had in the transfer market the inclination can be to look at how much money has been put into the team and demand answers to why quicker progress is not being made. But may be that perspective is unfair on Bruce. Another way of looking at it is that we have had £35m+ worth of talent ripped from last season's team, including our two top goal-scorers and our captain, yet so far weathered the storm reasonably well until now it is simply a case of limping our way along until proper repairs can be made in the summer. Perhaps he deserves the benefit of the doubt for now.
Ultimately, if there was a plan from the manager then I think he was forced to sell it to Aston Villa in January because it would appear to be long gone. However he MUST start stamping his own identity on his team now, whatever that may be, or I fear our progress will always be stifled under his leadership.