Captain's Blog: Identity Pivotal To Fledgling Sunderland Progress

Chris Brunskill

It's much too early to be talking about solutions and a glorious new future, but Sunderland have made some early progress under Gus Poyet, and the instilling of an identity upon his team is at the core of that.

Given the unpredictability of football, it is never really possible to know when you have seen a season-defining or changing moment as it happens. If Sunderland are to avoid relegation this season, however, there is one exact second of play that I will personally trace the salvation back to.

But, for me, it won't be Fabio Borini raking one into Newcastle's top corner, or Phil Bardsley tucking the ball into the Manchester City net with an almost unerring aplomb, or Gus Poyet sweeping into the club against a backdrop of general indifference.

In fact, it will be, on the surface at least, as innocuous a moment as they come. Jack Colback, in a sparsely populated Stadium of Light against Southampton in the League Cup, passing the ball to a centre back.

Because that was the moment when I realised that there was finally some method introduced into the Sunderland madness. At the time, Colback was around 30 yards from the Saints' goal but had few options. The exact kind of situation that customarily results in an aimless lump down a blind channel.

Yet he didn't. He simply spun on an axis away from immediate danger, and passed the ball back to the half way line. It was met with a degree of groans from the crowd, as you'd imagine, but some 15 or so passes later there was warm appreciation in the air as the passage of play eventually ended with a shot on goal.

The reason it struck such a chord with me was because it was, for the first time in literally years, I could see what a Sunderland team were actually trying to do. There was an identity there to by into.

'Identity' has been a bit of a buzzword amongst the fanbase for a very long time now. I can remember first lamenting the lack of one here on Roker Report as far back as Steve Bruce's tenure.

Paolo Di Canio certainly blathered on about it plenty, mind. He promised one on an almost weekly basis for his entire stay on Wearside. Though, with hindsight it seemed that his idea of instilling an 'identity' was essentially renaming the club 'Paolo Di Canio's Sunderland'. There was precious little evidence of any fresh or relevant new tactical identity on the pitch, certainly.

But it is a promise that Poyet has made inroads into delivering already. In the last couple of games his team have been trying a revolutionary new way of playing football that involves giving the ball to each other. Revolutionary on Wearside, anyway.

To be perfectly honest, I'm not even sure right now how much I like Poyet's brand of football. The obsessively patient possession game has rarely wowed me in the past, though when the right balance is struck between keeping the ball and actually doing something progressive with it, there are few philosophies I enjoy more. Time will tell, I guess.

It's just one of many open questions for which an answer is, for now, impossible to predict. Can Poyet sustain early promise when his predecessors couldn't? Will the new recruitment model deliver over time? Are this set of players just too blighted from the past to ever be able to move on from it?

Like everyone else, I have no idea what the answers will be to any of those questions. We have been lured into getting carried away with early results far too often before. It's not a mistake I'll be making again.

I'm genuinely excited about the prospect of our team having some kind of identity, though. Any identity would have done really, so long as it produced results, of course.

The power of it should never be underestimated in football. An identity on the pitch can knit an entire club together. It gives players something to focus their development on and a clear idea of what is required of them. It gives fans something to get behind and buy into; a methodology to understand. Whether it's football or flower arranging, understanding breeds patience, and patience is the very antithesis to the damaging frustration that has rained down from the in its droves in recent times.

Ultimately, I suppose what it boils down to is this: I don't know if we are finally on the right path. There have been far too many false dawns to allow me to trust the horizon ever again. But it at least feels like we are finally moving in the right direction again.

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