Tomorrow afternoon at Fratton Park, one of the most traditional and old-school grounds in English football, Sunderland will take on Portsmouth in what has, for the preceding three seasons, been an annual and all-too-familiar slug-fest between League One’s supposed biggest beasts.
It’s very far from a derby, it’s hardly a real rivalry, but it has rightly been seen as a key fixture – both home and away – for both sides as they test themselves against another club with relatively recent top-flight experience and the kind of self-image that means, for many fans, playing at this level remains a source of embarrassment.
The appearance of Ipswich Town and then Sheffield Wednesday has probably broken this north-south duopoly of “big teams” in tier three and taken a little of the sting out of an encounter that produced some memorable moments, but only rarely produced displays of the beautiful game in action, in the countless league, trophy and playoff matches we’ve played over recent years.
This weekend’s match is going to be different. It brings together two very modern head coaches in Lee Johnson and Danny Cowley, whose approach is representative of the modern English style of football that is transforming both of their respective clubs, as well as the English game from top-to-bottom.
The passion, the pride, the noise, the commitment, the work rate demanded by knowledgeable working-class crowds will still be there. But it will, if the first dozen or so matches of the season are anything to go by, be a quite different spectacle – one that is as pleasing on the eye as it is rousing of the passions.
For very many decades, England, in particular, lagged behind the other footballing nations in Europe, in South America, and latterly in Africa, in the kinds of footballers we’ve produced, the kinds of people who picked the sides, and the brand of football we’ve played. We had “managers” whereas they had “coaches” or “trainers”. We “got stuck in” and “stopped faffing about at the back” while they experimented with concepts of total football, positional fluidity, “universal” players and liberos, and innovative tactics. Our kids hoofed the ball clear in 11-a-side games, theirs showed their skill on the futsal court.
It is a gross oversimplification to say that the English (and northern European) way has been football as a functional machine, the rest of the world has seen football as artistic expression (the likes of Len Shackleton have always disproved this notion), but as a whole, it is difficult to escape the stereotype that English football has, ultimately, always prioritised the end result over the means of achieving it.
Even the introduction of the Premier League in 1992 couldn't shift the enduring image of the game as being played by players with passion, commitment, and drive but relatively little flair, skill, or tactical nouse as compared to rival football cultures, and the point has been repeatedly exemplified by the perennial failure of the national team to reach major finals.
I won’t labour the point, more accomplished authors and diligent students of the game than I have written volumes on the subject of why this has been the case; the causes are historical, cultural, socio-economic, and, in many ways, climatic - it’s difficult to play beautiful football on a February night in Stoke.
But one thing is clear, something has now shifted, and this shift is relatively recent. The intensity of English football is still very much its leitmotiv, but now intensity has been extended from merely getting the ball into the box for the big man to a whole-pitch approach that pits quick and skilful interplay against energetic and intelligent pressing.
This is the new philosophy that Lee Johnson spoke about when he first arrived on Wearside, and is still a feature of his post-match interviews. We have seen the shift happen rapidly, and it’s been a welcome shock to our collective system.
When the gaffer said, shortly after we’d hammered a poor, one dimensional and tactically naive Cheltenham Town, that he was more pleased about the implementation of his philosophy than the actual results – and moreover that he trusts that the latter will flow directly from the former – he was reflecting a profound sea-change in mentality.
And, for a football romantic like me, it’s a change for the better and long overdue.
The fundamentals of graft, concentration, leadership, and will-to-win will always be prerequisites. But now the quality of the means and the quality of the ends are now much more closely aligned. Style matters, but only if it produces substance. Smart data and analytics are combined with a preference for technique, footballing intelligence, personality and elite mentality.
It’s not just Johnson who has brought this approach to our division. Whereas in previous years we’ve taken on the power and height-based style of Kenny Jackett’s Pompey, we’re now facing a side led by Danny Cowley – who was very much on the radar of Sunderland AFC when we were after a replacement for Phil Parkinson at the beginning of December 2020. Cowley, like Johnson, is focused on the development of good footballers and good people who can play the game the right way.
Both Johnson and Cowley have the capacity to adapt their tactics to the squads and situations that they’re presented with, and Cowley was noted for his direct play at Lincoln City. His evolution indicates a student of the game, someone who is willing to learn, rather than a dogmatist blindly forcing round pegs into square holes.
Cowley is a teacher and came through as a coach in school football. His is a contemporary educational approach to working with young people, which emphasises respect as well as discipline, creativity and questioning, and the need to look at the whole person, including their mental and physical wellbeing, in order to train successful athletes who can deal with the inherent pressures of elite sport. These are themes that Kristjaan Speakman and Gareth Southgate have often talked about too.
This is a philosophy that seems to be proliferating throughout the game. It started with Arsene Wenger in the 1990s, and has evolved through coaches like Brendan Rodgers, who learned from Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, Jurgen Klopp used a version of it to transform Liverpool having shown how to do it at Dortmund, and Emma Hayes and Thomas Tuchel at Chelsea are showing how it can become a whole-club approach.
England’s national teams have been transformed as a result, with the upturn in results easily tracible to the need for young English footballers to have a game based on technique and intelligence if they’re going to make it at the very top level in the Premier League and Champions League.
The super-brand clubs – with more money than ever – can now harvest the best talent from around the country and are still able to recruit the best players from around the world. They come to the Premier League to work with the best coaching staff on the planet in the best-resourced facilities that have ever been made available to athletes in any sport.
However, they don’t have space for everyone to break through into the first team, and there are only so many clubs willing to pay fees for unproven youngsters. This has allowed a team like Brentford to use innovative approaches to take in those who are not considered to be guaranteed world-class players from the big London clubs, and use that human resource to build a sustainable business model and a team that plays high-quality, exciting football.
They then sell fully-developed players back to the elite. New ownership groups in the EFL - many of whom are very data-driven - seem to have recognised that this works and are orientating the style of play across their squads towards the new English style.
This way of developing a club isn't replicable everywhere, but variations on this approach at clubs like Sunderland and Portsmouth has meant that a trickle of the highest-quality young players are now coming down here to League One to get vital experience and game time, and to have the chance to make a name for themselves in front of relatively big and knowledgable crowds.
Dennis Cirkin and Niall Huggins have chosen to pursue their careers at Sunderland, Fred Alves, Nathan Broadhead, and Callum Doyle have been sent here to show what they’re capable of, and we hope to be first in line to offer them a permanent home if their parent clubs aren't able to find space amongst their superstars.
Portsmouth’s 19-year-old Irish goalkeeper, Gavin Bazunu, is on loan from Manchester City, and Chris heard from Pompy’s PO4cast podcast this week’s Roker Rapport preview how his recruitment was a conscious part of Cowley’s plan to reform their squad this summer. He wants them to play out from the back, pass through the lines, and press hard from the front when out of possession – exactly the approach that Johnson is using up here.
This change also shows Pep’s idea of having Premier League B teams in the EFL to be utterly self-serving and culturally ignorant nonsense. Not that long ago it was Man City who were down here, then it was Wolves, Southampton... the list goes on. That’s the strength and beauty of English football, a pyramid of four professional leagues where clubs are able to rise and fall based on their performances on (and off) the pitch. They have to adapt, rebuild, find a new way to be successful, or they fail.
The likes of MK Dons (not a club for the football romantic, but that’s another issue entirely) have been pioneering this kind of play at this level for a couple of seasons, and they now find themselves third, albeit only a quarter of the way through the season.
The contrast between Sunderland’s last two opponents throws this evolution into sharp relief. Ian Evatt has Bolton Wanderers playing quality football in all areas of the pitch and his side gave us a hell of a game last weekend and won 4-1 away at Charlton Athletic on Tuesday.
Cheltenham, who came up from League Two with Bolton, struggled desperately to cope with our style of play. Yes, these are two different clubs, operating on different scales, and Cheltenham had some key players out this week – but they offered no signs of tactical flexibility or quality, and were demolished by a side that was better in absolutely every respect.
So at 3pm on Saturday, we will hear a huge roar from home and away fans alike, and the players will give their all for a highly-competitive 90-odd minutes. The team that shows the most quality, the one that plays the best football, that one who is tactically smart and technically sound, will probably come out on top (as long as the referee and misfortune don’t interfere). I think we’ll be that team, but I think it will be a closer game than some might expect.
What I do absolutely expect, based on the philosophies of the men directing proceedings from the touchlines, is that we will be thoroughly entertained.