OK, so things haven't been going great. Obviously that is putting things rather mildly. During runs such as these (annually for us, usually) a plethora of wide-ranging criticisms are directed at the manager from all directions. Perfectly understandable, of course, and I am not here to defend Steve Bruce. But there is one particular criticism that crops up a lot that intrigues me greatly, and that is the assertion that Bruce has not been playing people in their preferred positions and so cannot possibly expect to get the best out of them. For this week's Captain's Blog, I decided to have a closer look at the merits of the theory.
When Jordan Henderson finally rediscovered some frighteningly good form against Birmingham and Wigan, many were quick to attribute it to being returned to his 'natural position' of the right side of midfield. Many were even citing this convergence of performance and position as proof that the player's true talents lay in a wide midfield role. It is possible, and definitely very much open to debate, although certainly in no way conclusive. What I personally found more telling, however, was that in the month preceding our visit to St Andrews, Jordan Henderson had played just 59 minutes of football in total. For months the general consensus of Sunderland fans everywhere was that Henderson was looking jaded and desperate for a rest, so it came as something of a surprise to me that when he did finally return to form directly after the kind of rest he looked so desperate for, the reasons behind it were attributed to something else.
Henderson is not alone in being largely excused poor performances on the basis of his manager allegedly misusing him. Steed Malbranque becomes especially relevant in this discussion, as does Stephane Sessegnon, and to a lesser extent Sulley Muntari and Nedum Onuoha. But to me, there seems a large element of hand-picking evidence to support personal conjecture in all of this. In attempting to unravel the reasons behind our form's shocking descent into a downward spiral, it appears to me that the 'out of position' argument holds very little merit.
For a start, I don't believe players should be pigeon-holed into one specific role. Certainly not players of the quality we are talking about here. A Malbranque, Henderson, or Sessegnon have the first touch and class to be highly versatile players and make huge contributions from any patch of grass on a football pitch from which they are deployed. Although Henderson was playing wide midfield against Wigan, it was still from a central position that he scored his two goals. Although Steed Malbranque was playing centrally in the same game, it was from the right flank that he delivered the peach of a cross for Gyan to head the equalizer. Lest we forget that had Kevin Phillips accepted the first position in which a coach had plonked him into he would probably be reminiscing on a career spent as a semi-professional right back right now rather than as a former England International and winner of the European Golden Boot.
Secondly, I look back through the years at some of my favourite Sunderland players and many enjoyed success for us playing away from their supposed 'preferred' or 'natural' position. Don Hutchison had a simply brilliant season for us playing predominantly down the right hand side of midfield. Michael Gray was converted to the left back position in which he would win England caps after starting his career in midfield. His great co-tormentor, Allan Johnston, was playing 'out of position' every time he curled a beauty into the top corner of the net after cutting inside from the left wing. I was never a fan of Danny Collins, but he often stated his 'preferred position' was not the one he won a Player of the Year award for us playing. Nyron Nosworthy steadfastly refused to play at centre back for Mick McCarthy yet when he eventually did make the transition to the position under Roy Keane he briefly excelled alongside Jonny Evans. He isn't the most graceful or useful centre half, but the point is that he is immeasurably better at it than he was a full back which was once considered his natural or preferred position. Steve Agnew, Julio Arca, Lee Howey, Kevin Ball... we could go on, but suffice to say that the list of players at Sunderland who have shed the shackles of being pigeon-holed into a single position to go on and make a real contribution in another really is very extensive.
There also appears to be a real double standard regarding attitudes towards the current squad too with this 'out of position' theory. Kieran Richardson will tell anyone who listens, and I am sure every one of the local sports writers will testify to this, that his preferred position is central midfield – a position most of us fans are desperate to keep him away from! When Fraizer Campbell breathed life into our spring revival last season, he did it mostly from a midfield position. Last night, Phil Bardsley was honoured by the Official Supporters Association as their Player of the Year, and he is surely the Official Payer of the Year in waiting too, and he has played just about all of it in an unfamiliar and unnatural position.
But whilst I dismiss the notion that players should be pigeon-holed into one specific position and not used anywhere else, I do think that Bruce needs to accept some responsibility for inconsistent and lacklustre performances from his individual players for failing to provide them with an environment conducive to establishing rhythm in their football and an understanding and connection with their team mates. To me, Bruce often appears to believe he can throw players around the pitch at will as if they were plastic toys on an early Andy Gray Sky Sports tactics board. All players, but especially those attempting to transition from one position to another, will ultimately benefit from being assigned clearly defined roles in a clearly designed system, and that is something that Bruce has singularly failed to deliver in his 2 years here to date. Whether that can be excused due to the difficulties attached to the lengthy injury list if a debate for another time.
So ultimately, I choose to dismiss the idea that players continually asked to play out of position has had a detrimental effect on our season this year. It just holds no water for me because you can look at just about any club exceeding their expectations in this country and you are likely to see players playing 'out of position' or players who have at some point migrated from one role in the team to another. We have players capable of genuine versatility so I don't see how asking them to use it is a problem. To use the oft-used metaphor of trying to put square pegs in round holes, I would suggest that the problem is more likely to lie in Steve Bruce changing the shape of his holes all too often, that is to say faffing about with his system, rather than in him moving his pegs around.