Much in the same way that Dick Advocaat and Sam Allardyce were able to find a functional fix for a faltering team in years past, David Moyes has seemingly found a formation that is effective when executed properly - the boss deserves a great deal of praise in identifying the issues faced by the squad, and tailoring a system that enables the team to compete with the clubs around them for the remainder of this campaign.
However, something needs to fundamentally change in order for us to escape the perpetual throws of early season disaster followed by emergency measures that just about keep the ship afloat. In order to prosper in the future, Sunderland need to strip their style back to basics; we need to develop an identity that is simple yet effective and offers us the opportunity to grow.
Next season ten players or more could potentially leave the club as their contracts come to an end. Adnan Januzaj, Javier Manquillo and Jason Denayer all return to parent clubs in the summer, whilst Jan Kirchhoff, Sebastian Larsson, Victor Anichebe, Steven Pienaar, John O'Shea, Joleon Lescott, and George Honeyman also have deals that will soon run out should they not sign an extension. Add to that list the inevitable sales of a handful of players and you’re looking at another extensive reconstruction task.
A cursory glance at our turbulent past tells you everything you need to know about our inability to flourish as a club. Eight managers since Steve Bruce left in 2011, and an extraordinary turnover of players - many of whom were sold on at a loss - has left us in a pit of stagnation.
Regardless of what league we are in next season, we will have to take steps this summer to kindle the brief sparks of identity that have shone intermittently this season. For too long the club have lurched from crisis to crisis, finding makeshift solutions that serve a short-term purpose. Whoever is in charge of the squad next season must look to build upon the foundations currently set in order to take the club forward.
Martin Bain’s notions about taking the club back to its roots were echoed in the recent NBCSN documentary which explored in detail what was required to be a successful Sunderland player. The general consensus seems to be that hard-work, passion and determination are prerequisites that every player should possess because those are the characteristics that embody the region. And if truth be told, it’s hard to disagree with that idea.
The Kevin Ball, Jody Craddock, Lee Cattermole, Alex Rae, Jermain Defoe, Kevin Phillips, and Duncan Watmore’s of the world endear themselves to the Sunderland faithful primarily because of their desire as much as their ability. The willingness to put your body on the line, to chase down every lost cause, to fight tooth and nail for 90 minutes are qualities that we hold in high regard. Skill and quality comes second only to the desire to play for the badge. It’s that fight and determination that must be emphasised beyond this season.
Of course you can’t just expect a group of purely hard-working, athletic players to do anything spectacular - that goes without saying. The point I’m trying to make, however, is that rather than patching together a group of talented players, we should perhaps look to foster a combative core of players who need not have the mercurial talents of Jeremain Lens or Asamoah Gyan. Perhaps we would be better suited to constructing a team that plays as a unit and is more determined in its approach.
We don’t need to be wowed with possession-based football, and tricks and flicks would happily be overlooked in favour of a more efficient approach. Essentially, the club needs to take a step back and fathom that simplicity could be the key to consistency.
Brood a squad full of hungry, passionate players whilst fostering a more simplistic, direct (not long ball) style of play and you create an identity that won’t necessarily win you silverware, but will certainly create a stability that we have craved for. How have we played for the last few years? I don’t think I could really answer that question; a plethora of styles and ideologies have been trialed at the club, but few with any real success.
I think nostalgia might be rife in my own assertions as to how the team should play - the Reid years were by far the most memorable in my lifetime, and that brand of direct, combative football is something that has always shaped my views on football. In fact Sam Allardyce’s approach to last season reminded me of those halcyon days of yesteryear, so perhaps that direct brand of pugnacious football isn’t necessarily a dated system with no place in the modern game - something Burnley and West Brom seem to have proved this season.
Ultimately, something has to change and Sunderland need to be far more settled in their tactical approach as well as their recruitment policies. An identity needn’t be groundbreaking, Sunderland don’t need to reinvent the wheel. What we do need though, is a consistent long-term plan that looks to unify the club and give it direction; while David Moyes seems to have found a system that caters to our immediate needs, it hasn’t necessarily been a total success thus far, as Saturday’s game proved.
I don’t doubt that Bain and Moyes have some plan in place to steer our club in what they believe to be the right direction. However, I do worry that another summer of upheaval could potentially hinder any advances made so far this year. It is paramount to the future of our club that Sunderland develop and identity and game-plan that looks not only to our current predicament, but also the future of our club.
Step one: get back to basics and battle for the badge.