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Killer Passes, Possession & Messiahs: A Cautious Take On Poyet

Gus Poyet might be an impressive up-and-coming young coach, but we should be careful not to get too carried away in the excitement of yet another new managerial appointment...

Richard Sellers

Sunderland have finally found their new Head Coach; the former Brighton manager Gus Poyet. Considering the options that were available I think he is a perfectly decent choice for the role, and it's hard for me to pick out anyone who I could definitively state I would have preferred. Whilst Rene Meulensteen came with great credentials as a coach, an area of expertise especially fitting for the role at Sunderland, his only previous tenures as the main man at Brondby and, extremely briefly, at Anzhi Makhachkala didn't exactly inspire confidence in his immediate ability to dig the club out of the relegation battle we currently find ourselves in.

Doubtless there were also plenty of possibly eligible candidates with top flight European experience who would have loved a chance to prove themselves in England. However, as someone who only really watches the odd high profile continental fixture outside of Champions League matches I can't really say that I'm too disappointed that we didn't plump for, say, Ralf Ragnick. I honestly have very little idea about his possible credentials for the job, likewise those of any other manager who has managed just in Italy, Spain or Germany. That's not to say such a candidate could not have been a success, just look at the instant impact of Mauricio Pochettino and Michael Laudrup in their first English posts, but nor do I feel aggrieved that Ellis Short decided not to follow Southampton and Swansea's lead.

However, whilst I do think Poyet is about as sensible and solid a choice as was possible, I also feel that we as fans need to approach the new head coach's appointment cautiously. Speaking personally, I was extremely dubious about the suitability of Paolo Di Canio when he was appointed earlier in the year. Yet when his Sunderland side swept away Newcastle before battling to a miraculous victory against perennial bogey side Everton I found it impossible not to be caught up in the Italian's, often self-generated, hype. It turned out that my earlier sceptisim about Di Canio's suitability was more warranted than my later excitement as it emerged that his management techniques, especially his man-management, were woefully unsuited to the Premier League. As much as he seemed to rail against footballers who had too much, too soon it seemed that his step up from League One to the Premier League was precisely that.

If my hopes ended up exceeding expectations with Di Canio, then it was not much different with the previous incumbent. When Sunderland finally appointed pretty much every supporter's dream manager Martin O'Neill in 2011, I was convinced that the "Party With Marty" would carry us away from relegation battles and, I dreamed, into the veritable Eden of consistent top 10 finishes. Again, brilliant early results gave some credence to this faith as the Northern Irishman's side found fantastic form and results in late 2011 and early 2012. However, that house too came crashing down as the good performances ebbed away, and with them results and performances plummeted.

So whilst I do hold some doubts about Poyet's ability to save Sunderland this season, the primary reason for my caution is nothing to do with the Uruguayan, but is relating to his predecessors. Simply put, I've been hurt before. I would of course love to see Sunderland instantly transformed under a new manager into a team with no worries about relegation, a side that looks up the table rather than down, but I don't believe that the arrival of yet another new manager is all it will take for us to reach such dizzying heights. Poyet, even if he is a success on Wearside, is just another piece in the puzzle that Ellis Short is trying to assemble at Sunderland.

However, it is not just the failures of previous feted appointments that has made me feel more cautious about Poyet, there are also some slightly worrying factors inherent in our new head coach's footballing philosophy. His Brighton side were an excellent possession-orientated team that notably beat both ourselves and Newcastle in cup fixtures during his tenure, but as was mentioned in Chris' article on the new boss they also failed to come from behind to win a game after August 2011.

Whilst this deficiency wasn't too readily apparent when they were one of the better sides in the Championship, if it carries over to Poyet's Sunderland side it is likely to be a big problem. No matter how optimistic you are, it has to be expected that we will fall behind a lot of times in games this season. It's essentially what Sunderland do. It doesn't matter if it's a wonder-goal like Aaron Ramsey's or a freakish one like Daniel Sturridge's; dropping the first goal tends to happen to teams scrapping in the bottom half, and especially, it sometimes seems, to us. If we are unable to fight back to claim a win in any games we fall behind in for the rest of this season, it's hardly pessimistic to feel that even with a more attractive possession-oriented style of football we could still be relegated.

I must stress that this is just a statistic, whilst two years is a worryingly long time for a side to go without fighting back from being behind to win a game it is not a fait accompli that this trend will follow Poyet to Sunderland. Hopefully after having time out to think about this failing, and gifted with a higher calibre of player, he will be able to correct the issue and find a way for his side to come back from behind without compromising the way he wishes his team to play.

Yet this is not my only worry. For years now one of the main complaints of many Sunderland supporters has been the lack of a real playmaker within the red and white ranks. The outcry for us to sign a midfielder who can "put his foot on the ball" has come about every transfer window in the last few years. Often in games Sunderland will push on to find an equaliser or winner, but despite exerting huge pressure and pinning back their opposition will eventually prove unable to find the crucial final ball to create a clear-cut chance. Recently both the Manchester United and Liverpool games witnessed this issue, and last season was littered with fixtures where this happened.

This could rise to be, if possible, an even bigger issue under Gus Poyet's possession-based style of play. "Sterile domination" is a term that has been used to describe how several teams of the last few years managed to dominate possession yet fail to pose any real threat to the opposition goal. Arsenal in the last few years and both Swansea and Liverpool under Brendan Rodgers can be found as particularly guilty of this.

It is noticeable that the recent improvement of the form of all three of these sides correlates directly to their adopting, at strategic times, a more "direct" style of play. Both of Luis Suarez's goals for Liverpool against us a few weeks ago showed Brendan Rodgers' side in their new mould, with the Reds sweeping forwards to execute impressive clinical counter-attacks with a minimum of fuss.

Likewise Arsenal have been the best team in the Premier League this season, and have also shifted to a more counter-attacking style of play. Mesut Özil's first goal for the Gunners against Napoli last week was a perfect example of how attacking with purpose and speed can be more effective than simply dominating possession. Finally, this season Swansea under Michael Laudrup have averaged 59.6 long balls a game, the third most in the Premier League, yet their style is hardly indicative of a "lump it up to the big man" approach a la Tony Pulis' Stoke, and it proved to be both aesthetic and effective in Swansea's League Cup winning season last year.

I'm not trying to argue that possession football is utterly ineffective or pointless, as this is patently untrue, but it is possible to see sides starting to move away from a pure possession game with notable success recently. Even the most obviously successful possession-based side of the moment, Barcelona, have at times adopted a more expedient approach under new coach Gerardo Martino. Against Rayo Vallecano earlier in the season they had less possession than their opponent for the first time in five years, yet still managed to win 4-0.

When they do utterly dominate possession, Barcelona are blessed with players like Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta who can pick out the final killer pass to create a goalscoring opportunity, and this isn't really the case with Sunderland. The arrivals of Ki and Giaccherini have given us two more creative midfielders, but I still worry that if we do adopt a far more possession-oriented game we could end up dominating the ball, but still encountering our perennial problem of being unable to create a chance when our opposition stick massed ranks in defence.

This is not meant to come across as a negative piece. As I said at the beginning, I don't really believe there was a better available choice than Gus Poyet, however I do want to urge caution with him. As we have seen recently, a quick spike in results does not naturally mean that the new boss is going to become a success on Wearside, and I also possess some doubts about the efficiency of a heavily possession-oriented game. A quick upturn in results followed by our now annual slump will not be enough to save Sunderland this season. However, Poyet is a young and ambitious manager who should hopefully be willing, like Brendan Rodgers has done, to adapt his tactics to achieve success, and there is a long way to go in this season yet. Just like O'Neill, just like Di Canio, Poyet is not the Messiah - let's just hope he's also not just a naughty boy.

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