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Captain's Blog: It is Points That Matter, Not Possession And Plaudits

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In recent years, Barcelona have been romancing the world with their football. Their rhythmic domination of possession, championing skill and technique over size and strength, has earned the club an army of admirers across the globe. I must admit that I am an admirer of it myself, to a certain extent at least. By that I mean I love seeing Lionel Messi able to showcase his majesty in the kind of freedom with which the system provides him, but the million passes that tend to precede it do absolutely nothing for me.

But whilst I can admire Barcelona's football, one thing I find considerably less palatable is the wave of pomposity sweeping through English football that it has created. It seems that we are never short of people falling over themselves to use the Spanish champions to define what football is. 'Proper' and worthy football, anyway.

Last Saturday, we welcomed to Wearside a club winning many plaudits this season for adopting a somewhat Catalan footballing philosophy – Swansea City. Brendan Rodgers and his team absolutely deserve credit for having the courage to so steadfastly and, so-far at least, successfully stick to the footballing principles in which they believe. They lived up to their billing, too, expertly monopolizing possession and stroking the ball from flank to flank with aplomb.

However, if you picked up a newspaper this week that covered the game, the impression that you will have probably been left with is that Swansea utterly dominated proceedings, outplayed their hosts, and could count themselves unlucky not to take some points back to South Wales. I dismiss that notion entirely. Sunderland were out-passed, yes, but not outplayed. They are by no means the same thing, and until football is decided on possession rather than goals, they never will be.

If you were looking for evidence of that shameless and entirely unjustified pomposity, then look no further than LOSING Swans chief Brendan Rodgers. His post-match comments were absolutely dripping with it. “It is great for the public here at Sunderland to see us. They must have been wondering what this team everyone is talking about are all about and now they have seen. We were wonderful."

Wonderful in what way, exactly? In 40 years time, I can't envisage many in attendance regaling their grandchildren with the iconic tale of when Swansea City arrived on Wearside, ponderously passed everyone into a coma, and forced Simon Mignolet to make a routine save from distance. Wow. What a privilege it was to witness that.

The assumption seems to be that every team who aspires to kick a ball wants to play Barcelona-style passing football, which certainly isn't the case. Despite what many would like to tell us, it is not the 'right' way to play football. It is merely one way amongst a plethora of options which create the tactical diversity upon which the game's popularity is built. If football was decided purely on how well a team could coldly pass a football around a pitch, we'd be left with a painfully dull weekly spectacle.

Without a shadow of a doubt, the visitors on Saturday dominated possesion. No one could possibly have any arguments with that. But Swansea controlling the ball couldn't possibly have equated to Swansea controlling the game, because Sunderland chose never to contest that aspect of it. The way Sunderland were set-up was the same as they have been in every single one of Martin O'Neill's games in charge so far – allow opposition possession high up the pitch, stay deep and narrow, maintain your shape, and break quickly.

For Swansea to have been the dominant force, then Sunderland would have had to have been coaxed into surrendering their defensive integrity in an attempt to hunt the ball, and that certainly wasn't the case. The game was, essentially, played on Sunderland's terms. Manchester City and Wigan, two other teams who rightly pride themselves on their comfort in possession, similarly failed to take any points against Sunderland in the last month. Some would have you believe that is a lucky coincidence.

For the first time in years – probably since Peter Reid's tenure – Sunderland have a clear footballing identity. In remarkably quick time, O'Neill has organised Steve Bruce's squad into a disciplined and resolute counter-attacking team. That is every inch as valid and commendable a footballing identity as the one which Swansea have created for themselves.

Had Bruce (someone who never managed to provide any of his three Sunderland teams with any real identity - not one that couldn't be sold to Aston Villa, anyway) still been in charge then willingly allowing the opposition to enjoy such possession would have almost certainly provoked a poisonous atmosphere at The Stadium of Light. But, despite a little anxiety on occasion, the crowd on Saturday knew and understood what their team were trying to do and so were able to easily back their efforts. That is a powerful thing when in the hands of such a vociferously passionate crowd as the one Wearside boasts.

So all these teams who obsessively pass their way to pats on the back are absolutely welcome to them. Let them continue to lament lucky Sunderland until they are blue in the face. Long may it continue. I'd rather have points than plaudits any day.

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