Gustavo Poyet brought a style of play not often seen on Wearside, and after taking over from Paolo Di Canio he managed to guide the club to their first visit to the New Wembley, the quarter-finals of the FA Cup and perform a self-styled miracle to save the club from relegation with a game to spare. Although his time of Wearside ended on a sour note, and in truth it all started to unravel following the heavy defeat at Southampton, few Sunderland fans will forget the first six months of 2014 in a hurry.
Despite the season eventually requiring a Harry Houdini-esque escape act, the formation of Poyet’s tactics and style of play was quite a slow burner.
Clearly influenced by the tactical trends of the early 2010s, Sunderland settled on a 4-3-3 formation with one holding midfielder from almost the start of the Uruguayan’s reign. A three-game experiment with 3-5-2, which was binned after a 5-1 defeat at White Hart Lane, notwithstanding this remained the shape of the side throughout the season, despite a number of changes to personnel.
In truth there was little revolutionary about Sunderland’s play off the ball under Gus Poyet. They operated like most teams at the bottom-end of the Premier League in this era, both wingers dropped back to support their full backs and the side excelled at maintaining discipline in the 4-1-4-1 shape from which they operated a passive style of pressing, something which suited centre backs O’Shea and Brown due to their lack of pace, which prevented them from playing a high-line.
Despite this side being known as a short-passing, possession-based Sunderland team, they regularly had less possession than their opponents, even in the dominant 3-0 win at St. James’ Park. This does not show memories of this team to be a myth, but merely highlights the lower tempo with which the side played, they were happy to control the game without the ball even when playing against teams such as Manchester United and Chelsea away from home.
As I mentioned at the beginning, what makes this team stand out when looking back was the tactics used when in possession. Again following the tactical trends of the time, when the ball was won back, defensive midfielder Cattermole - who can count himself unlucky not to have been included in the England squad for the World Cup in Brazil such was the level of his performance under Poyet - dropped in between the centre backs who split wide. Both full backs them pushed up the pitch allowing Borini and Johnson to play close to striker Wickham.
From the 4-1-4-1 deep block without the ball, Sunderland quickly turned into a 3-4-3 for the first phase of build-up play, something which would have been impossible had the players not shown a great amount of bravery in possession - only clearing their lines in exceptional circumstances.
When possession had been secured, what really made the formation work was the balance of the three forward players. Johnson was mainly a creative player, frequently operating in the number ten position, and coming into the space negated by Larsson - who replaced Ki late into the season - when the Swede dropped short to bring the ball forward from deep.
On the opposite flank, Borini constantly looked to offer a threat in behind the defence, and his natural instinct to play alongside the centre forward meant the shape of the side sometimes looked more like a 4-3-1-2 than a 4-3-3. The narrow position of Borini also opened up space for Alonso, a player widely considered to be an out-and-out wing back, to have control of the left-side.
In the middle, Wickham was eventually preferred to Altidore for his goalscoring but the trait that linked the two strikers was their physical strength and work rate. Both players were asked to offer an option short whilst also chasing balls into the channels and putting opposition defenders under pressure.
The importance of the front three for Poyet’s preferred system shows exactly which Sunderland were unable to repeat their heroics in the following season.
Whilst Alonso was certainly a miss, he was replaced by another attacking full back in the form of Patrick Van Aanholt, similarly Jordi Gomez was perhaps even more suited to the system than Jack Colback. The less said about Jack Rodwell the better. The real tragedy of the summer window 2014 was the inability to resign Fabio Borini, the Italian was operating in a role tailor made for him, and his absence meant Connor Wickham frequently started on the left wing. The big striker’s presence was not only missed in the middle, but he did little to replace the Italian’s running in behind the opposition defence.
Just like Sam Allardyce’s Sunderland which I looked at last week, Gus Poyet’s Sunderland represents the general theme of the club’s latter years in the top flight; a series of missed opportunities and subsequent regrets.