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‘Obsession With Progression’ — Should Speakman have stuck to his guns in the summer?

“Perhaps Speakman should have displayed his obsession with progression a few months earlier than he did. We now have a coach nobody wanted, presiding over a decline in performances and results, whilst alienating the fanbase.”

Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Last night I watched a documentary about Pep Guardiola. It was absolutely fascinating, chronicling his rise as a young Barcelona player under Johan Cruyff, through his ascendancy to become the coach who first played Messi between the defensive and midfield lines of opponents to such great effect.

In many ways, it was a glowing tribute to a coach who undoubtedly changed the style of football across the world. His philosophy of possession-based play, starting with the goalkeeper and defenders, is the basis of what you will see in any professional English match today.

There was one moment that really hit home with me, and resonated with Sunderland’s current predicament.

After Barcelona, Pep moved on to Bayern Munich. In an interview, legendary German goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer, revealed that before a crucial match, Guardiola abandoned his favoured tactics, and handed over decisions about the game plan to his players.

The outcome was a dismal defeat, a side which could have still have won the tie were roundly beaten because their coach abandoned all the principles that had underpinned his previous successes.

It took some time for me to reflect on how this experience resonated with Sunderland. Yet, eventually, it did.

Last summer, basking in the glory of a successful return to the Championship, with a play off place under our belts, there were links to new coaches. The most prominent was Francesco Farioli, now enjoying huge success in Ligue 1 with Nice. And there were others.


Despite all the speculation, Kristjaan Speakman opted to stay with Tony Mowbray. Mowbray had become a hugely popular figure with the SAFC fanbase - he was a father figure for a young squad, a Northerner who understood the passionate nature of football in this region, and a likeable personality whose penchant for chocolate snacks was endearing. But was he the best coach to take this young squad forward?

Looking back now, my best assessment is that the squad had improved beyond Mowbray. The surprise counterattacking package of the first season back in the Championship had developed the ability and confidence to dominate possession. And that demanded a coach who could turn that dominance of possession into results.

Sadly, we now know that Tony Mowbray was not that man. After some promising early performances, the weight of expectation seemed to overwhelm both the team and the coach. As possession stats increased, performances and goals expected declined. The build up play descended into pedestrian predictability.

Substitutions became mundane and uninspiring - at 60 minutes, two players would be introduced who would offer nothing different to the players they were replacing. The last few games under Mowbray were as dour as some of last season’s games were exciting.

Millwall v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship - The Den Photo by Rhianna Chadwick/PA Images via Getty Images

Watching last season’s Mowbray team had been an absolute joy, this season it had become increasingly painful - even when we won a point, it felt like an underachievement.

Which brings me back to Guardiola. Taking his Bayern Munich side into a crucial match, and abandoning his own beliefs, was only going to end badly - and it did.

I can’t help but wonder if Kristjaan Speakman abandoned his beliefs, by not bringing in a new coach, when he knew that Tony Mowbray had taken this squad as far as he could. Ousting Mowbray in the summer would have been hugely unpopular with the fanbase - but it may also have been the right decision for the club.

Looking at the situation in which we now find ourselves, perhaps Speakman should have displayed his obsession with progression a few months earlier than he did. We now have a coach nobody wanted, presiding over a decline in performances and results, whilst alienating the fanbase.

Would replacing Mowbray in the summer really have produced a worse outcome?


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