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Winning Ugly - Bringing Smash-Mouth Football to Sunderland

Football used to be a tough game. Then everyone went soft and started doing the Tiki-taka. Was last season’s Leicester title smash-and-grab a one off? Or is pace and power back in fashion? Winning ugly, Smash-Mouth Soccer is coming to Sunderland.

Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

In his first press conference, David Moyes revealed the beginning of his reign would likely involve ugly football – ugly football with the aim of winning by any means necessary. It was starkly refreshing to hear Moyes acknowledge a much needed pragmatism to his early days in charge of Sunderland. Extensive rebuilding in his own identity will take patience. Much of this summer’s transfer window and preparation time has been lost.

Ensuring Sunderland are firmly ensconced in a position of relative safety come Christmas is paramount. Winning the home games of which you are capable, and raiding away trips for an ugly point will do that. That is Smash-mouth football; and David Moyes is going to bring it to Sunderland and we’re going to love it.

Smash-mouth belongs in American Football. It’s about power plays and fast running attacking moves, coupled with aggressive, co-ordinated defending. Gridiron has a language all of its own and it’s virtually unfathomable to us Brits. But, suffice to say that Smash-mouth is about ground-and-pound play and putting a hat on a hat. Get it? It also involves maximising the points you are capable of getting from any given game; ugly doesn’t matter, winning does.

Here’s how it’s going to work in soccer, or football to you and me:

Smash-mouth: A psyche, convincing your opponent that you’re going to smash him in the mouth, and compelling him to believe that he’s going to get his mouth smashed – figuratively speaking of course. Attacking plays are powerful with the aim of ramming the ball down your opponent’s throat. It’s Lamine Kone in the penalty area in the final home game against Everton last season, it’s Fabio Borini launching himself head first at Danny Simpson and it’s Lee Cattermole terrifying Norwich City with a roar most thought had been fashioned out of the English Premier League

Ground and pound: Running the ball at the opponent’s defence (pound) and having an elite defence who can stifle the opponent’s attacks (ground). Pure ground-and-pound football involves 50% or more of game time running at the opposition. The remainder is spent grinding out, defensively resolute and wearing the opposition down. At home, the emphasis is on ‘pound’ and winning games. Away from home, results are ‘ground’ out, with the aim of coming away with at least a point. This is Patrick Van Aanholt on the left hand side of the opposition box, but it’s also Jan Kirchoff – unflustered controlling in the home third of the pitch and stopping the opposition playing.

Putting a Hat on a Hat: Each player assigned defensive duties knows exactly who he is picking up. Defensive plays are carefully orchestrated and rehearsed. Defensive lines move in a choreographed unit. Opposition set plays are monitored and reacted to accordingly.

OK, so it’s all a bit too American, but I’m using the theme to consider how Sunderland are going to get points in the early part of a season, which is a feat that, traditionally, is just way beyond them.

First game up is Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City; and Pep is the master proponent of the possession game right? So, we aren’t going to compete with the Tiki-taka man in the beautiful football stakes. He’s the antidote to Leicester City in more ways than one. First, he’s going to bring a different style to the most physical of Europe’s elite leagues, which was won by guerrilla warfare raiders last season; and second he’s been funded, along with the other big names arriving on our shores – Klopp, Conte and Mourinho, to make sure there is no repeat of an upstart upstaging the money men of the Premier League.

David Moyes has always been a win-ugly kind of a guy. His career win percentage is pretty impressive at 42%. Higher than Sam Allardyce, it was actually Big Sam who conceded more goals than any other manager against Moyes’ Everton teams. Moyes has also always had a pretty decent record of picking up points where at all possible.

His record at Everton saw his teams only lose one in five games against sides in the bottom half of the table, and he only ever lost half a dozen games against opponents who were in the bottom three. Not bad eh, especially considering Sunderland’s dismal record in recent years against teams around them in the table. Moyes did lose 70% of his games against Rafa Benitez, but we don’t need worry about that next season.

To complete the Smash-mouth project I fear Sunderland need three things. First to keep Lamine Kone, as he’s going to be the kingpin of Smash-mouth, but also to source a back-up physically fearsome centre half. For all John O’Shea has strengths, he’s lost a yard, so he has too much of a tendency to back off his man these days to be down the throat of his opponent.

Second, Sunderland require an injection of pace. Duncan Watmore and Fabio Borini have potential for the Smash-mouth project; forwards who aren’t afraid of getting in the faces of their opponents. But, what I’m really hankering for is an injection of pace down the right hand side and in the centre of midfield.

Finally, we need a physical striker; a target man who can bounce off central defenders and pick a header. A different type of forward to Jermaine Defoe. Moyes’ strikers at Everton were often unremarkable but effective in the box; James Beattie, Tim Cahill and Louis Saha being the pick of the crop. One of those types would do nicely.

There we go – win ugly, play Smash-mouth. Let’s christen the Moyes era and revel in a hard winning, hard hitting brand of football that takes what it can get out of every game. I know one thing, no matter how refined the rule makers try to nullify football as a physical game – the Stadium of Light loves a hard tackle and an edge to a player. If ever a club and culture would embrace football as Smash-mouth, Sunderland is it.

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