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Nous, Ingenuity & Luck: How Poyet Is Transforming Sunderland

With the international break upon us, we take the opportunity to analyse what has changed under Gus Poyet's reign.

Michael Regan

Gus Poyet is our third head coach this season, after Paolo Di Canio was sacked and Kevin Ball's brief spell as interim head coach, but with the league wins over Newcastle United and Manchester City at the Stadium of Light (as well as the Capital One Cup victory over Southampton), he is the only one of the three to actually win a league game, so what has changed?


Poyet has now had six games in charge, home wins over Newcastle United, Southampton (in the Capital One Cup) and Manchester City and away defeats to Swansea City and Hull City. Those three home wins are the first time the team has won three consecutive home games (in all competitions) since the wins over Birmingham, Spurs and Burnley in March and April 2010. They did win 3 consecutive home games in the league in 2011/12 but there was a home FA Cup draw with Middlesbrough sandwiched in-between.

While the team have performed really well at home so far, there have also been worrying implosions that have lasted an entire half in the two away games, in the second half against Swansea and the first half against Hull City. In those two halves combined, Sunderland have conceded five goals, three of which were own goals, another was a penalty and we had two men sent off.


For his first game in charge, away to Swansea, Poyet made three changes from Sunderland's previous game against Manchester United, with Larsson replacing the ineligible Ki, Jozy Altidore making way for the returning Steven Fletcher and controversially bringing in the previously shunned Phil Bardsley for Jack Colback.

Since then he has stuck with four at the back, with two genuine full backs in Bardsley and either Dossena or Celustka, rather than the previous head coaches preference for one of Craig Gardner or Jack Colback filling in there. John O'Shea has been an ever-present in Poyet's five games so far but he has already had three partnerships already, with Wes Brown and Carlos Cuellar starting alongside him twice and Valentin Roberge once.

In central midfield, Poyet has alternated between two and three players. Lee Cattermole started three games before being sent off and Ki has replaced him in the two games since. Alongside those two, Jack Colback has started four times, Seb Larsson has also started four times but with one of his starts coming out wide and finally Craig Gardner started twice.

In attack, Steven Fletcher has started every league game under Poyet, with the head coach alternating between one, two and three strikers. Fletcher partnered Altidore in the Newcastle game, Fletcher, Altidore and Borini all started against Hull and finally we went with one up front against Man City, Swansea and Southampton, with the lone striker role going to Fletcher in the two league games and Altidore in the cup.

Out wide Adam Johnson has started every game, bar the Hull game, where he came on at half-time, Giaccherini has started three, with Larsson also moving into that role against Newcastle.


For the purpose of this article we will now be taking a look at three home games, against three similar sides under the three different head coaches and examining just how Poyet differed from Ball and Di Canio. Those three games will be the 3-1 home defeat by Arsenal under Paolo Di Canio, the 3-1 home defeat by Liverpool under Kevin Ball and the 1-0 home win over Manchester City.

The starting line-up and formation selected for each match is as follows:

4-4-2 vs. Arsenal: Westwood: Celustka, Diakite, Roberge, Colback; Johnson, Ki, Vaughan, Mavrias; Altidore, Fletcher.

4-3-3 vs. Liverpool: Westwood; Gardner, O'Shea, Cuellar, Colback; Larsson, Cattermole, Ki; Johnson, Altidore, Giaccherini.

4-1-4-1 vs. Manchester City: Mannone; Celustka, O'Shea, Brown, Bardsley; Ki; Johnson, Larsson, Colback, Giaccherini; Fletcher.

Now those are the starting formations but how were the players deployed on the pitch? Well using heat-maps we can show where the approximate average position on the field was for each player and show how that affected the average formation during each game.

Against Arsenal:

Sunderland - Football tactics and formations

Against Liverpool:

Sunderland - Football tactics and formations

Against Manchester City:

Sunderland - Football tactics and formations

What you can see from those three formations, is not only how much more deeply we played on average against Manchester City (in part due to an attempt to hold onto the lead) but also how the full backs pushed on, with Ki Sung-Yueng dropping back and almost making a 3-4-3 formation.

If we take Ki in isolation, we can see how different his role has been under the three coaches. Against Manchester City he was asked to sit deep, almost as a sweeper, and given the job of keeping the ball moving but despite sitting so deep he never made a single tackle, compare that to the Liverpool and Arsenal games where he made 3 and 4 respectively. During the Man City game he also made 4 clearances, as compared to just 1 in the other two games combined.

You can see in the Liverpool game how Cuellar and O'Shea moved further to the left to try and combat Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, a tactic that didn't work as the two opposition strikers scored all three goals between them. It's also noticeable how we again had two central defenders and a midfielder as our three deepest players, this time the midfielder being the returning Lee Cattermole but with Cattermole playing a more traditional holding midfield role.

Cattermole made more tackles against Liverpool than Ki did in the Man City game but the South Korean made 57 passes compared to Cattermole's 35 against Liverpool, with the tough tackling Englishman only making 25 short passes during the game, as opposed to Ki's 51.

Poyet's tactics against City, combined with Ki's role, had an effect on team's passing, with 298 passes out of 378 successful, compared to 279 out of 347 against Liverpool and 204 out of 273 against Arsenal. That doesn't tell the whole story though, for that we will need to take a look at the short passes and long passes separately.

Short passes vs. Manchester City:


vs. Liverpool:


vs. Arsenal:


For the short passes, there were 278 out of 328 successful at the weekend, 268 out of 311 against Liverpool and only 195 out of 248 against Arsenal. In the Manchester City game you can see how we were happy to keep possession in our own half and build slowly, whereas against Liverpool the emphasis was on getting the ball to the wing and giving our wingers and full backs as many opportunities to get forward as possible, while against Arsenal the short passing is condensed into the middle of the pitch.

Compare that to the long passes, in the Arsenal game every one is aimed long at a striker and with very few actually finding their target. It's a similar story against Liverpool but with more success and the strikers then spreading play wide to the winger. In the win against City you can see how the team is happy to spread play at any time and at any point on the pitch.

Long passes vs. Manchester City:


vs. Liverpool:


vs. Arsenal:


Looking at the long balls and average position of the players from the Arsenal game, you can see how Di Canio wanted the defenders to get the ball long and quickly to Fletcher and Altidore, that led to a gap opening up between the midfield/attack and defence, which in turn led very few passes between the defenders.

The Squad

Gus Poyet's football philosophy is clear, a possession game with a team that is hard to break down. The first real signs of which during his Sunderland reign have come in the two games in the last week or so but do we have the players to cope with that style of football?

What is clear, is how important Ki is to the 4-1-4-1 possession game that we saw in the first half against Manchester City and at times against Southampton, that leads to a bit of a conundrum for Poyet in the name of Lee Cattermole. Before Cattermole's red card against Hull, Ki had only played 20 minutes as a substitute against Newcastle under Poyet, missing the Swansea game due to being ineligible and only an unused substitute in the Hull defeat.

While it's obvious how important Cattermole can be, he was immense upon his return before his sending off, he is a completely different kind of midfielder to Ki. If we are to stick to the blueprint we seen against Southampton and City (a set-up that was reminiscent of Brighton under Poyet, with Liam Bridcutt playing Ki's role), then Ki really will be key if that system is to be a success. Although Cattermole's passing is underrated, he will never be able to match the sheer fluency and accuracy of Ki's passing.

Poyet has talked about getting consistency in his team selection, something we have seen little of so far, with formations and team selection appearing to be 'horses for courses' situation on a game-by-game basis. If that is to continue then Cattermole will still have a big part to play, but if we start seeing the team and formation settling down as Poyet gets his ideas across and the football purism comes through, then Lee may find it hard to get back into the side.

In the 4-1-4-1 formation, there are another two central midfield roles (that have been filled by Colback, Larsson and Gardner so far) and during Poyet's Brighton days those three midfielders did eventually evolve into a rotating three. It will be interesting to see which of our current players will be able thrive in such a midfield. Ki looks a certainty, Colback and Larsson should do well, however there have to be doubts over whether Cattermole and Gardner can adapt to that system but there are also other possibilities.

Two of which are Giaccherini and Cabral, Giaccherini is a clever enough footballer and has shown his adaptability and quality with Italy and Juventus, he could be a possibility to slot into that role, then there is Cabral, who played a similar way with Basel, both domestically and in the Champions League, but who rumours suggest has had a question mark over his attitude during his time at Sunderland. There is also young Alex Gorrin, a young Spanish player who has impressed in the reserves and was rumoured to be close to a first team debut, the possibility of recalling the popular Alfred N'Diaye is also an option.

Around the rest of the pitch, Mannone is possibly a better option than Westwood for a possession orientated game, Brown and Roberge would be comfortable, O'Shea looked more comfortable passing in the first half against Man City than he has done for some time, there would have to be questions marks about Diakite and Cuellar and our full back situation is still a concern. Bardsley is out of contract in the summer, Celustka is only on loan, while Dossena started well against Newcastle before he let the team down badly after his horror challenge against Hull.

We have good options in attack if we are to stick with the 4-1-4-1 formation, with Giaccherini, Johnson, Mavrias and Moberg Karlsson as attacking midfielders and Fletcher, Altidore and Borini fighting it out to be lone striker but as Poyet has stated that we will be building from the back, we may need to remain patient with our attacking players. That's not to say the attack isn't on Poyet's to-do list however, with the team averaging only one goal per game under his reign and chances few and far between, getting a similar fluency in attack that the rest of the team showed in the last two games will be essential if the team are to climb the table.


Although the start of Gus Poyet's managerial career at Sunderland has actually been inconsistent, with three good home wins and two horrific away performances, when put into context of our season before he arrived, his start has actually been very good.

He has made some brave decisions. Recalling Phil Bardsley was not a popular move but then sticking with him after his horror show at Swansea was just as brave and so far has worked. His selection against Newcastle was surprising, with Dossena making his debut, Cuellar returning and Giaccherini missing out as he went for a traditional 4-4-2 but his choice of players with Premier League experience as well as a high tempo style paid off handsomely in the derby.

That's not to say he hasn't made mistakes, with the starting XI against Hull looking unbalanced as Fletcher, Altidore and Borini all started but a midfield of Cattermole, Colback and Larsson never looked creative enough to create chances for the three strikers and so it proved, as the performance in the first half was dull and lifeless even before the first half own goal and then the two red cards.

The first half against Swansea in his first game was promising but he looked to have been out-thought by Michael Laudrup in the second half, as we just couldn't cope with Swansea after the interval and were lucky we only lost 4-0.

Craig Gardner's selection in central midfield twice is also a little puzzling, considering how the game usually passes him by when he plays there and how often he is caught dawdling in possession.

He also got lucky with the timing of Wes Brown's return from injury, who was solid against Southampton but inspirational against Manchester City and showed just how much we have missed his presence the last 22 months. It's arguable that Lee Cattermole's sending off against Hull may also be a lucky break in the long run for Poyet, as that meant a return for Ki, who was absolutely instrumental in our last two games and led to our passing play being so highly lauded.

Overall, a promising start to his reign but with a huge amount of work to do both on the pitch and in the transfer market if the club are to survive in the Premier League this season. Both halves against Manchester City show we are capable of staying up for differing reasons, the first half showed he can get us playing our way out of trouble and the second half showed we have the determination to fight for every point.

That gives us hope for this season and beyond under Poyet, he is slowly making us play the right way and given time there is no reason why he can't be a big success on Wearside but should the worst happen and we lose our fight for Premier League survival this season, I believe Poyet has already shown enough to suggest he would be the right man to lead us back up and finally giving Sunderland an identity on the pitch.

Statistics from this column come from FourFourTwo Stats Zone and Daily Mail's Match Zone.

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