Since Kyril Louis-Dreyfus completed his takeover and installed his senior management team at the club there has been much talk about establishing a football philosophy at Sunderland AFC. The term has been repeated over and again without – until recently – much detail as to what it actually means.
It is easy for owners and senior managers to use terms like ‘football philosophy’ without explaining it. As Sunderland fans, we have heard it all before whether the voice be that of Roberto De Fanti, Lee Congerton or Martin Bain, so it is natural to be sceptical.
Such phrases, without being backed up by detail and more importantly actions, are meaningless.
This time, however – mainly through interviews with Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman –we are starting to see some flesh being added to the bones of all of this management talk.
In terms of the structure of the leadership team, action has been evident from very early on in this process. Key appointments have been made and we are now starting to see what seems like a sensible and affordable management team being put in place.
Speakman has said that this process is incomplete and further key appointments will be made. Given the slash-and-burn policies of the previous regime, those appointments are badly needed at academy and corporate level. It is also pleasing that the structure seems to fit where we are now and can be flexed if and when we manage to get out of League One.
Having such a structure however does not create a football philosophy and – until recently – this aspect has only been defined in the loosest of possible terms. In his latest interview with the club website, Speakman referred to the first-half performance against Lincoln as the blueprint for the future – an illustration of what he sees as the future football philosophy. He referred to that philosophy matching the beliefs of the supporters and fitting in with the culture of the city and its people.
That first half against Lincoln was for me a proper Sunderland performance – the type of football that all successful Sunderland teams have played.
High energy, pressing, playing without fear and being aggressive with and without the ball. It took us back to the peaks of Peter Reid, Mick McCarthy and Roy Keane teams.
That, in my view, is how a Sunderland team should play: with wingers, with energy in the midfield, and with attacking players operating together.
Sadly, this group of players couldn’t sustain it and the inevitable result followed, but if that’s the philosophy whatever the formation may be, then that excites me and I am sure that the fans in the stadium come August will respond to it.
Having a philosophy and having the players and manager to make it successful are obviously two different things. Clearly, those players who have been let go did not fit the profile.
It is fairly obvious that the Leadbitters, Powers, Maguires and McLaughlins of this world would not fit into such a high tempo, hard-running style. Others left for similar or other reasons, and this leaves us with the opportunity to create a squad and a team to fit the defined philosophy. The pressure is now on the recruitment team to find players who can perform and perform consistently. Fitness and having a robust physique will be key, mental strength to endure a marathon season will be vital.
None of this is new and we can go back to the Denis Smith era to see what works at Sunderland and at this level. The current philosophy is more or less what Smith implemented with his vibrant young team thirty-odd years ago.
Lee Johnson is the man chosen to instill this ‘new’ philosophy into the first-team squad. He is a very different character to successful managers of times gone by – be that Smith, Reid, McCarthy, Keane or Allardyce. He seems to be much more of a technocrat rather than a motivator or a spotter of raw untapped talent. That doesn’t mean that he will not succeed – there is no reason at all why he can’t or why he won’t, but he will do it in his own way and in his own style.
It will be fascinating to see how it all develops.
So, if this is indeed the philosophy – a high press – an attack with intent, with pace and with power and passion running through the team, we will need to recruit not only young energetic legs we will need to recruit some big characters to make it work.
Some modern-day Alex Raes, Lee Clarks, Kevin Balls and Gavin McCanns will be needed in the team. Clearly getting players of that quality won’t happen this summer but the recruitment team will need to look well beyond the data to identify those of the right character to make this philosophy a successful reality.
If that is indeed the plan – and if Johnson can make it work – then we may have some fun again when we return in August.