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Tactics Are The Least Of Sunderland's Concerns Right Now

The focus of late has been on tactical tweaks at Sunderland, but there is a far greater concern currently undermining those efforts.

Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Shall we talk about that horrible FA Cup game with Fulham? I suppose we'd better at some point, and it's not one I want to linger over for even a second longer than I have to.

I personally find it tough to criticise Poyet too much on his attempted 5-3-2 system to accommodate Jermain Defoe. It hasn't worked yet, granted, but he's absolutely correct to have recognised the need for tactical change. Many a manager wouldn't, or couldn't.

It was all very positive against Tottenham Hotspur too. Chances were created and the eventual defeat was harsh. More importantly, the mentality was right. There was a commitment to attack, without abandoning all semblance of defensive restraint. The balance was better.

This weekend against Fulham though, the alarm bells were ringing. The team that started the game was negative, unbalanced and, although it changed at half time, from a tactical point of view a strange mishmash of contrasting ideas.

That probably stemmed from Poyet's reliance on a defensive midfield player. It's the most important role in 'his' system, and he's not shy on telling anyone about it.

He's the player who protects and distributes. He's player who drops in to essentially make a back three to cover for full backs with freedom to get forward and become wing-backs. In simple terms, that role is Poyet's tactical comfort-blanket.

That's fine. Tactical clarity is just as big a managerial gift as tactical versatility. The problem was that it's a role which is utterly redundant in front of a back three.

Full-backs are already wing-backs; the defence is a back three by default; there is already a spare man to protect the positional integrity of the (other two) centre backs. It's a redundant position - a wasted resource. A dedicted man to do a job the system does by design.

Instead, the role of the deepest of the central midfield three morphs - at the risk of encroaching into the hipster world - into that of a regista.

Perhaps Poyet figured that out by the break, because that's actually a role that Seb Larsson played absolutely superbly in the second half against Fulham. He stayed deep, kept himself available to receive possession, and distributed it quickly and accurately with long sweeping passes to the wing-backs, who are the spare men in a 5-3-2 system. When needed, he was also defensively responsible. The Swede is no Andrea Pirlo, but he was efficient and influential in the role.

However, what was less easy to understand was the selection around that deepest lying midfield player.

Adam Johnson was injured, but if he can play in a midfield three away at Spurs, albeit as a slightly more offensive one, then Ricky Alvarez can at home to Fulham. If Emanuele Giaccherini can play central midfield in the same system for Juventus, he can do it for Sunderland.

That's a key issue because, whilst you can talk about tactics and shapes and systems all you want, if you don't have the individual talents on the pitch, it all becomes irrelevant, and that's what Poyet's team selection did this weekend.

Jermain Defoe is clearly still a quality finisher. He barely had a bit of service and still came close to nicking a couple of goals for himself. But, generally speaking, goalscoring is about two phases of play. If there is no one on the field to spot and supply a final pass, good finishers suddenly stop being match-winners and become ordinary players.

I'm not worried personally about Poyet from a tactical point of view, and I suspect I never will be. I'm sure I'll disagree on certain points with his decisions, but I think he's very astute there and the Bridcutt/Larsson switch at half time showed that whatever inconvenient habits and comfort blankets he has in that area can be shed. I hope he's the Sunderland manager for a very long time to come. I'm very much in the 'back him' camp rather than the 'sack him' one.

However, ideologically, I'm beginning to worry about him in the short-term. Rome wasn't built in a day and it's reasonable that he is trying to establish solid defensive foundations this season as a precursor for more expansive football further down the line.

For whatever struggles we've had to put up with, though, Sunderland is and remains a 'have-a-go club' in spirit, and that's a facet of the club it feels like Poyet is neglecting right now - and I'm not sure how much longer that can continue without more serious questions being asked.

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