"… I think the key behind my strong home record at Brighton was the connection with the fans – I can see that here [at Sunderland] …"
Fewest league wins at home? Check. Most goals conceded at home? Check. En mass stadium walk out? Checkmate. It took 17 months for Gustavo Augusto Poyet Domínguez’s connection with his supporters to break. But, when it came to his players, was there even one to begin with?
Back when Poyet raised the scarf in October 2013, he came with no fanfare or talk of ‘revolution’. His managerial credo was of a divisive yet successful coach, lionized by lower-league pundits, but his new task was simply to stop the rot on an inevitably-doomed season.
However, Poyet subtly introduced a systematic overhaul on the pitch. By December 2013, he was testing a connection about his squad by integrating his tactical doctrine, "play the ball": a possession-based, passing-prioritised system – ‘creole’ inspired, and 1990s ‘tiki taka’ in practice.
Poyet called it the ‘identity’ Sunderland needed; both intriguing when it worked and exasperating when it didn’t. However, the instability his methodology contained would define the Uruguayan’s career on Wearside, contextualised by the 2014 Capital One Cup Final.
Before Wembley, Sunderland had inspirational momentum. In 4 months, Poyet had orchestrated wins over top-four clubs alongside a derby double. 9,000 fans followed him to Old Trafford, and in defeat at the Capital One Cup Final, Poyet ensured the nation knew of his budding relationship with supporters, stating "… the Sunderland fans made me feel better …"
But after Wembley, Sunderland fell into total form collapse. The FA Cup suckerpunch loss to Hull City broke the momentum, but the flurry of losses thereafter badly beat down the team and supporters alike. By April 2014, Poyet himself was hit hardest. With the club in tragically crap form, the Uruguayan conceded "… something is wrong … maybe my way is not [the solution] …"
A makeshift compromised attack to accommodate Connor Wickham and a sudden committed solidarity from the players culminated in the idea of Poyet’s vision: the ‘great escape’. As seen in the win at Old Trafford, the 5-match run showed how his way could work in the Premier League.
The 14/15 pre-season was the chance for Poyet to develop on the basics of his vision and introduce an advanced, uncompromised version of his system. Sunderland would not dominate possession for 90 minutes but they could be organised and controlled when in it. Players were required to understand both their individual positional awareness and the team’s collective, tactical knowledge. Less pass-and-move, more steady paced methodical passing. As Poyet outlined in 2012, "… we train [on] maintaining possession and … [to] maintain the shape …"
The anchor of open play was deep defending; to press and defend as a team, and stop the opposition from reaching the defensive third. In possession, full-backs started the attack and widened the shape. To support the risk of an open central defence, the midfield/defence gap was reduced so a make-do, narrow defence could be organised against counter-attacks.
A central midfield trio required "… intelligent players and good passers …" whose timing and coordination was essential. The advancing two were expected to retain possession with smart passing and, in attack, to track the wing-play and be in position for an inside pass or cross. The defensive midfielder; while holding possession and shunting opposition out wide would be needed as cover for the width created by the team’s attacking centre backs.
Wing play was tactically conventional – two full-backs supported two wide midfielders, and combined the players overflowed the final third. Of the full-backs; one advanced as a mid-third wing-back; the other remained more traditionally in the defensive third to ensure the balance in an unbreakable, thickset shape. Of the wide midfielders; an orthodox ‘winger’ with good acceleration and technique was deployed far into the attacking third for counter-attacks and rebounds; the other ‘false winger’ provided more mettle in midfield and was tactically supplemented to advance as an inside ‘second striker’ behind the centre forward. Both wingers were also instructed to contribute defensively to support overlapping full-backs.
The centre forward, as a lone target man, was provided less tactical inclusion in favour of a striker’s instinctive movement. Against a high line, Poyet desired a strong yet agile forward who could "… make it confusing … make a variety of different runs, swap positions, come deep … constantly look for pockets of space …" Goal conversion however was the responsibility of the player, not positional or tactical instructions, as Poyet suggested of Jozy Altidore in March 2014.
From Poyet’s own words, that was the general idea of his style. It was counter-culture to the pace of the Premier League but common in Europe. A select few of the players at Sunderland understood it and even influenced matches using it in the 13/14 season. So it must have been infuriating for Poyet that these were the players he lost in the 2014 summer transfer window.
Phil Bardsley was the second-most used outfield player that season. Jack Colback and Ki Sung-Yeung both racked 91% pass accuracy in a system where good passing was a necessity. Marcos Alonso flourished in his half-season loan deal. And no player adapted better to Poyet’s system than Fabio Borini. None were retained.
So rather than build upon the groundwork he had established; Poyet had to reintroduce his philosophy to the diluted replacements acquired for the 2014/15 season. Given that the Uruguayan’s first campaign on Wearside was an uncoordinated mess of wayward consistency, these new players needed to help Poyet ensure his second season did not follow that pattern.
Results were okay at first. Set-piece coordination had improved and a reliable defence was well-drilled (only Sunderland has stopped Chelsea from scoring this season). The defence was overly-prioritised but it made sense so long as there was no mid-season relegation drama.
But this is Sunderland. Poyet’s once-unique system was no longer unpredictable and savvy managers had since adapted to it. Sunderland were being caught out by any added pressure against the width the team had created; forcing calamitous errors in the defensive third.
However no defensive blunders from last season came close the 8-0 carnage at St. Mary’s in October 2014 – the match that exposed every flaw in Poyet’s system. "… It created doubt in the players’ minds …" he later admitted, but as the draws piled up, was the doubt in his mind too?
Supporters began to pin more underwhelming results on the as-yet unseen ‘identity’ Poyet had become so hell-bent yet closed-minded on establishing. It was turning worse than Arsène Wenger’s Mars Bar revolt in 1998. The pressure was on Poyet. His unwavering philosophy was setting progress in reverse after 14 months. Any criticism of it was becoming a tad justifiable.
It was an insightful quote from Poyet himself however, that highlighted further complications in December 2014. The Uruguayan confessed, "… we’re not playing even 50% of the way I want to play … I’m adapting more to the team than the team’s adapting to the manager, for sure …"
By February 2015, whilst dabbling with untested formations, Poyet reluctantly adapted more to the supporters too. When fans joined the dots on poor results and a system that wasn’t working, the call for attacking football was made – and Poyet bit. Against QPR, he gave his interpretation of the Peter Reid era playing style and afterwards branded it, "… craziness … a desperate team … trying to be nice with the fans … by asking the team to do things we are not capable of doing, we are going to have this problem for years …"
The quote was thoughtless spite. Poyet had given supporters something they wanted only to provoke them by insulting it after. They were not the words of the ambitious head coach who strove to shape an identity within the team. Instead, as seen against Bradford City and Hull City, Poyet was distinctly frustrated, uninspired, even deflated – perhaps enough to just give it all up.
He didn’t need to when the Stadium of Light emptied against Aston Villa. Poyet’s sacking was becoming a crucial necessity. No statistic this PL season flattered Sunderland under Poyet. The team had the 2nd lowest shots per game, the 2nd lowest goal tally, 3rd fewest interceptions, 2nd fewest tackles and 4th fewest chances created. There are too many more to go into.
The basics of Poyet’s possession-based approach also produced crud stats. The club’s 78% pass accuracy was the 7th lowest in the league. The club was also 8th for unsuccessful first touches and 11th for rate of dispossession. Sunderland had +50% possession in just 7 matches under Poyet despite no team playing in their own half more and in the opposition half least.
The collective £35.2m+ roster of five centre forwards scored 9 league goals under Poyet. Sebastian Larsson, Adam Johnson and Jack Rodwell combined scored more. After the loss to Aston Villa, only 15 of 227 chances created were converted – a 7% conversion rate.
26 points after 29 matches was only one point better off than the 2013/14 season too.
So after 1 year, 5 months and 9 days, Poyet’s connection with supporters ended. However it was this disconnection between his philosophy and the players that resulted in his eventual departure. It was rarely ever embraced and, after months of persistence, he finally realised it.
Frustratingly, Poyet had failed to do with Premier League ‘professionals’ what he did with League One nobodies. Even the basis of his methods – tactical team cohesion – became a lost cause. From the end of the ‘great escape’, the collapse in performances was appalling at times.
Players who did flourish in his system were not reacquired or retained by the club under its financially-pragmatic yet somewhat detrimental transfer policy. When signing a ‘quality player’ in Jermain Defoe, Poyet was required to alternate his formation. Again, he had to compromise.
As a manager who had enough ambition to try something different at Sunderland, that constant battle to implement his vision was perhaps his ultimate downfall. Under better financial circumstances, Sunderland may just have benefited more under Poyet’s management. A good system only works with the right players and Poyet knew who he needed.
After the lost-tactical chaos of Steve Bruce and non-dimensional managerial negligence of Martin O’Neill, it’s important to recall how welcome Poyet’s methods were in those successful early months. If there is anything he should be recognised for it is his endeavour. Gus had a vision for Sunderland that he wanted supporters to connect with.
It’s a shame he couldn’t get his players to.