When Gus Poyet was announced as Sunderland manager we were warned that although he had an attractive plan A, which was easy on the eye and had come close to securing Brighton promotion from the Championship, he lacked any sort of plan B. In his short time on Wearside so far Poyet has produced not only a plan B, but several nuanced strategies.
It took until a League Cup game against Southampton before Poyet introduced the philosophy of play, which has become the hallmark of his burgeoning managerial career. Previously, he'd shown a great deal of pragmatism in defeating arch rivals Newcastle United in a memorable derby victory, opting for two strikers and a two man central midfield. Ironically, Newcastle have since shown they are capable of dominating a similarly undermanned midfield with victory at Old Trafford, which only serves to highlight the subtleties of Poyet's own tactical mastery of Alan Pardew in that 2-1 win.
Once this approach had been seemingly ditched in favour of the three man midfield that many of us had longed to see at the club, Sunderland have looked a far more effective side, beating Manchester City at home in surprisingly comfortable fashion and earning a draw at Villa Park, which but for some profligate finishing, could and should have been a victory.
In the two home games since that draw, Poyet's multiple plans have come to the fore and although both matches ended in defeat, there was good and bad in both performances. The majority of the good came in the loss to Chelsea, where Poyet's meticulous approach deserved to reap some form of reward. His alterations for the Spurs game however, were a step backwards by comparison.
Against Chelsea, Sunderland were unfortunate enough to come up against Eden Hazard, a man who put in arguably his best performance yet for the club. Poyet started the game with his customary three man midfield, opting to continue with Craig Gardner, despite his ineffective performance in the 0-0 draw at Villa Park, while also replacing Steven Fletcher with Jozy Altidore and Seb Larsson with Jack Colback.
Gardner was again frustratingly uninvolved against Chelsea, while Colback struggled and was subbed off early in the second half. The replacement of Fletcher with Altidore, however, was an inspired one. What was particularly encouraging about these alterations was that, unlike when previous managers had chopped and changed the starting XI, there was a clear strategy, which was not damaged by one player replacing another; roles within the side were clearly defined and remained so.
Equally pleasing to see was that, while the game was slipping away, Poyet was not only brave enough to change the system, but to do so with a clear plan of action. Under Di Canio and Steve Bruce before him, strikers had been thrown on in an attempt to claw games back. A 1-0 derby defeat under Bruce in his final season at the club springs to mind as an obvious example. Simply throwing on strikers is more of a sign of desperation than a guarantee of goals.
When Poyet decided to bring Steven Fletcher into the fray against Chelsea, he did so knowing he is a goal scorer, but there was a game plan too. The Uruguayan understood what his forerunners failed to, simply having more strikes on the pitch is not enough; they need to be utilised in the right areas. That this particular scenario had been planned for carefully was obvious and there was not a hint of desperation about the substitution.
Unfortunately, Jose Mourinho is a master of reactive management and his response was to bring on John Obi Mikel, and he began winning a series of headers as Sunderland looked to go direct. Even allowing for this, an unlikely comeback was almost completed towards the end of the game and despite losing, it felt like there was plenty to positive about. Evidently, the side is still lacking in individual quality in a number of areas, Gardner being an obvious example, but at least there was logic in his selection.
Why then, did he abandon his favoured system for the Spurs game? Poyet's decision to start both Fletcher and Altidore was a surprising one, which was greeted with a mixed response from supporters. Like the decision to stick with Gardner in the previous two games, there was a rationale evident in the move; this is a side that lacks goals, Gardner - in theory at least - scores them. After two anonymous performances from the midfielder, what better way to try and get more reward in forward areas than to introduce a natural goal scorer in Fletcher from the start?
There was some evidence of it working in the first half. When Sunderland took the lead it was via an excellent team move, finished sublimely by Adam Johnson, another player reintroduced for this match. After a dismal second half, it's easy to forget that Sunderland competed well in the first and had they not thrown away a soft set piece goal just 5 minutes later, then things could have been very different. Sometimes too much focus is placed on formation. Tactics go beyond a simple graphic description of the line-up and what is more important is the way the players carry out instructions on the pitch. With that in mind, it could be argued that Poyet was let down by the same set of players who have now failed a number of managers.
Whilst it took a weak own goal to hand Spurs their second, the system certainly began to creak under mounting pressure during the second half. By this stage, the formation as well as team selection was becoming problematic and it became clear that Poyet's decision to go with two up front was not only misfiring, but backfiring. Spurs took control and should have won the game by a more significant margin. If this was plan B, then a reversion to plan A was required.
Bringing on a midfielder for a striker when your team is trailing looks like an inherently negative move on the face of it, but just as throwing on strikers doesn't guarantee goals, reducing your number of forwards also needn't be a defensive move. With Fletcher offering arguably less than Gardner had in the previous two games, his removal would surely have assisted the side. A similar ploy was often used to good effect by Roberto Mancini in his Manchester City days, where he would bring on a naturally defensive player in Nigel de Jong for an attacker, to free up other players to get forward. Many a tight game was won by City thanks to this tactical shakeup.
Poyet may not have the quality of player to work with that Mancini did, but he has shown himself to be a shrewd tactician. The fact this squad was built for a different manager, with a different formation in mind, makes it more difficult for him to implement his style of play as successfully as he'd like to. If anything, that is as good a reason as any to stick with it. Only by continuing to play as Poyet wants them to, will they have any chance of properly getting to grips with the intricacies of his style of play. Poyet has perhaps proven himself to be too much of a pragmatist just as the planner in him was beginning to surface. Now more than ever, it is essential that he persists with his plan A.