The Lars Word: instilling style and identity at SAFC

As seen by Jake
As seen by Jake

Over from his USA exile, soaking up the glories of Lindisfarne (Holy Island not – whisper it – fondly remembered Mag band), Lars Knutsen offers some thoughtful views on the style he sees evolving under Gus Poyet …

Let’s face it, the summer is a relative literary desert when it comes to football writing, especially during and after the dross that the England team served up during the World Cup.

Most football writers are speculating about the future, which player will end up where and for what fee, how teams such as Southampton or Blackpool can possibly sell all of their players, or the more routine stuff about the rise or demise of Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea or any of the top teams.

One thing that has to be looked at after the performances in Brazil is the “pedigree” of England players.

The current formula is that to be considered, players can only be part of a limited set of top clubs, to become an England regular.

It must be acknowledged that this strategy has failed. Anyone in the Premier League who puts in consistently excellent performances, even at less fashionable clubs, should be in the England manager’s spotlight.

I will boldly predict now that Jack Rodwell will be one of Sunderland’s most important signings of the decade. I am also glad to see that he is of England pedigree, and sees his international chances increasing by joining the Black Cats.

For that to happen, Sunderland have to start winning early in the season, and play with style. The memories of the late season surge has kept us fans going through the summer, from the draw at Manchester City, the wins at Chelsea and Manchester United and the vital home wins over West Brom and Cardiff.

In the end, we played with poise and style, and deserved to stay up, finishing above Aston Villa and Hull City.

But this begs a broader question: what is Sunderland AFC’s style? I have been a fan for more than 40 years and have seen a lot of highs, but also some terrible lows. Can we say the club has a definitive style?

In a recent interview with the Sunderland Echo, Gus Poyet promised to transform not just Sunderland’s squad but also the whole playing ethos at the club.

After steering the club to safety last season, the Uruguayan has begun his remodelling of the playing staff but suggested that there is a need to establish a “Sunderland identity”.

“Players coming to this club in the future will understand that they are coming to a club where there is a certain way of playing,” he told the Echo. “An identity.

“He will know that that Sunderland are going to play this way, that they are going to train at certain times, that they are going to behave in a certain way, that they are going to prepare in a certain way.

“They will be able to clearly see and respect a way of understanding football and what their job is. I do really believe in consistency and stability and having a plan and an approach.

“Long-term consistency is what we are all about – about finding that long-term consistency – and the best way to do that is to create something where on and off the pitch everyone knows what being this sort of Sunderland player is all about.”

But if we have such commodities, what is Sunderland’s style and what is its identity? We know after the closing run at the end of last season that we can go anywhere and win, and if we are talking long-term consistency here, I would have that as a feature of the team, a never-say-die attitude.

That was the attitude that saw us go 0-1 down at Man City and Chelsea in April, and still come away with four points from those games.

In my decades as a supporter, despite some very low points, such as those under Howard Wilkinson and prior to that, Lawrie McMenemy, when we actually descended to the old Third Division, now League One, we have never been a “long-ball” team.

There have been a number of teams over the years that treat the ball as if it has an infectious disease, such as Wimbledon, Watford under Graham Taylor, Sheffield Wednesday under Wilko and Jack Charlton – in fact any team managed by Jack Charlton, as well as Cambridge United under John Beck.

There was a theory, also espoused by Denmark when winning the 1992 European Championship, that it was important to fire the ball as rapidly as possible into the opposing penalty box, even from the goalkeeper, and get the centre-backs to head it out, in order for a five man midfield to gain possession and cross it back in to the box for tall strikers to score.

That 1980s and ‘90s long-ball “style” of football, has been consigned to the annals of history now, in favour of a more continental “possession” game, which relies on patience, accuracy of passing and it has even become quite acceptable to pass the ball backwards in order to hold on to control of the game.

That was something that was never tolerated at Roker Park; such movement and would be greeted by groans from the crowd.

But what is fascinating, as a Sunderland fan, is to watch a re-run of the 1973 FA Cup win over the mighty Leeds United, who were a very direct, but niggly sort of team, and to note how we played a possession game in the second half, to contain the more aggressive team.

Move 41 years on and there was an amazing passage of play five minutes from the end of our 1-0 win at Old Trafford, when we held the ball through about 20 passes before Borini hit the woodwork in what surely would have been a goal of the season.

I will now admit that the continental style of play has come to stay, probably because we have so many skilful overseas players in the Premier League.

We have a manager whose teams, when playing at their best, will exude that style, passing the ball, keeping it on the ground, and crossing into the box where we have Wickham, Fletcher and hopefully Borini available to convert.

It does not mean that the ball is never volleyed out of defence, for example, to clear, but aimless balls over the top are generally discouraged in favour of constructive possession.

There was a story from Jack Charlton’s autobiography when he was manager at Newcastle, when he had Chris Waddle, Paul Gascoigne and Peter Beardsley in the team. He caught the former two players playing a “one-two” in training and took the ball off them, saying “I want you to play one-twos with God”, meaning the ball had to be blasted over the top, in a long-ball fashion. It worked with Ireland, but wasted the talents of the players in that Newcastle team, who soon departed for Spurs and Everton.

So to summarise, I see Sunderland’s style as one involving passing football, constructive possession, and a “never say die” attitude, involving plenty of effort. I know that is hard to rationalise with some of the low points of last season, especially at home in the League, but our manager is getting things his way now, and I for one hope that at the end of the transfer window we will have the right mix of players to play that way consistently, and feature in the top half of the Premier.


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2 thoughts on “The Lars Word: instilling style and identity at SAFC”

  1. My only concern with Gus’s passing style is that every game there seems to be at least one incident where one of our players gives the ball away under no pressure directly in front of goal.

    Brown did it against Darlington, Cattermole against Hartlepool and Vergini against Udinese in the three pre-season games I got to.

    I’m very much pro Poyet and what he is trying to do (and I have a gut feeling that he could be there for a long time) but I hope that his players lose this capacity for being over casual.

    Incidentally, although he was facing a strong wind on Saturday, Pantilimon’s kicking was woeful. The upside is we do look very comfortable in possession and once we get the ball players have options, the whole side being much more fluid than in recent seasons.

  2. Good article Lars.

    I’m not sure what our “playing identity” is, or whether there is such a thing at all.

    Poyet’s comments about “something being wrong” were interpreted in all sorts of ways at the time, but he had a very good point. Over the last 4/5 decades we have completely underachieved as a club. Big gates, and a loyal support suggested to most of us that we should have done a lot better than yo-yoing between the divisions.

    The game and the way that the money flows no longer means very much, if anything at all, as they money from gate receipts is a tiny fraction of the income generated from TV revenue. Any potential leveling of the playing field has been more than counterbalanced by the even more ludicrous sums propagated by European competitions.

    All that said, the “identity” of the club (as opposed to playing style), has been one where second and third rate players have been able to ply their trade and line their pockets without contributing very much. We are now competing with that image burning in the minds of would be targets in the transfer market, geographical issues and the stereotype of what the North East and Wearside in particular means to people. Most of us wouldn’t know what to do with 60K a week. After a couple of splurges on some finery I would soon be saving the most of it for the increasingly looming old age. I wouldn’t want to live in London on 120K a week, but it seems that a lot of footballers can’t see beyond that. Even if they can then the horizon doesn’t extend as far as Sunderland unfortunately.

    There was a time when a player moved clubs. He sold his house, told his missus to pack the best China and he moved to within spitting distance of his new club, where he could stay for years. That rarely happens these days either. So much has changed but so much more has to change if we are to reinvent our identity as a club. Maybe only then we can see the emergence of “a playing identify.”

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