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Sunderland v Gillingham - Sky Bet League One

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Total football? Sometimes a different ball game is needed to win

“We could and did play attractive, exciting football under Lee Johnson – and very well on many occasions – but for now, in League One, we simply have to find a way of winning,” writes Joseph Tulip.

Photo by Trevor Wilkinson/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

From Wimbledon’s ‘Crazy Gang’ approach to tika-taka – a vast array of footballing styles has captivated footballing audiences for generations.

When I started following the game seriously in the mid-90s, teams “trying to play good football” were rightly lauded.

The word “trying” is significant, because such outfits were almost always up against ultra-physical defenders such as John Wark, Steve Bruce and Sol Campbell, combative midfielders in Roy Keane and Vinnie Jones, and had to pass the ball on muddy, patched up pitches which rarely resembled the bowling green finish off today.

When Sunderland lined-up at home to West Brom in November 1997, Peter Reid was still assembling the side, known for its exciting style of play, which was to dramatically miss out on promotion in the high-profile defeat to Charlton in the play-off final at Wembley.

The Baggies didn’t look as threatening as we did in that winter fixture at the SoL, but I remember my dad praising their “good football” and their dangerous, skilful winger - a certain Kevin Kilbane.

Soccer - Coca Cola Cup - Third Round - West Bromwich Albion v Liverpool Photo by Michael Steele/EMPICS via Getty Images

Several years later, West Brom were widely complimented for their total footballing tendencies, despite being relegated from the Premier League under Tony Mowbray.

It came during an era of severely contrasting styles, with the 2000s witnessing modern revivals of age-old tricks and tactics aimed at winning, whatever the cost.

From Sam Allardyce at Bolton and Tony Pulis at Stoke, to Jose Mourinho at Chelsea – they weren’t bothered about possession, entertainment or plaudits – the focus was on a more physical approach, using holding midfielders and extra defenders to ‘stop’ the opposition from playing football, long balls and indeed long throws aimed at lone front men, ably supported by a multi-talented number 10 such as Jay-Jay Okocha, experienced schemers like Gary Speed and specialists in the darker arts of the game, with Kevin Nolan enjoying relative success in the role.

At the time I was completely against this approach, often referred to as “anti-football” – and I remember stating back then that I would never want Sam Allardyce as manager of Sunderland.

All that changed when Big Sam arrived and set about saving us from relegation in 2015-16. It took the former Bolton boss a while to get his feet under the table at the SoL and find a settled XI, which fell into place once the January transfer window had been used to bring in Jan Kirchoff, Wahbi Khazri and Lamine Kone.

While I’d been brought up to admire good footballing sides – and I’d always loved watching Manchester United under Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger’s invincible Arsenal team – I learned something from Allardyce during his spell on Wearside.

Sunderland Pre-Season Training Camp - Day 2 Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

That was to maximise your strengths. I’m sure if he had the best squad in the league at his disposal, Big Sam might have adopted a different approach, but he found a way of winning even if it went against what many people wanted to see.

Fast forward to this season. I absolutely loved the football we played under Lee Johnson, seeing the pace and movement of our young players on the attack and looking, at times, like taking League One by storm.

And while I certainly wouldn’t have sacked Johnson – after all we were third in the league - some of the peculiar defeats we suffered were because other sides had worked out how to stop us and exploit our weaknesses.

The process of changing managers (okay, head coaches) cost us matches and points, but now Alex Neil is at the helm and I can only admire his pragmatic approach. Many have claimed we’re not as pleasing on the eye. That is true and on Saturday we weren’t at our best. But we’re tight at the back, are keeping clean sheets, and are still using our younger, pacy players to carry us forward in attack.

We’ve swapped our playmaker in Dan Neil for the solidarity of Corry Evans, and it’s a shame to see the tenacious youngster Jay Matete also on the bench, but Alex Neil’s number one priority is finding winning results at all costs, and I’m absolutely fine with that.

We’re not long ball merchants either, mind, but without Callum Doyle carrying the ball out of defence and Neil dictating play from the centre of the park, we can’t have everything and we have to respectful of the experienced protection provided by Evans and the yards covered by the tireless Luke O’Nien.

Sunderland v Gillingham - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

As for top level football now, teams have gone too far towards total football in my opinion.

There’s an air of predictability about it and it often lacks intensity. Mind you, I still like to see the likes of Manchester City show us how it’s done.

I think what frustrates me is watching lesser sides try to play it out from the back or give it away in midfield by trying to overplay it – then concede a goal within seconds.

In my view, teams should play to their level, and therefore their strengths. They shouldn’t be the masters of their undoing by trying to be something they’re not.

Now back to Sunderland. We could and did play attractive, exciting football under Lee Johnson – and very well on many occasions – but for now, in League One, we simply have to find a way of winning and hopefully securing the promotion place we’d all love to see.

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