WITH each game, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that Gus Poyet’s overall approach to matches involves a strategy that extends beyond his first-team selection and the system within which they operate.
Poyet has already gained a reputation for being able to mould, adapt and improve players and this evidently involves man-managing them too; even when they’re on the bench, his players are as important, if not more so, than those in the starting XI.
Take the weekend game against Tottenham Hotspur as the most recent example of his ability to change a game by not just turning to his substitutes’ bench, but also reshaping, reorganising and revitalising his team in the process.
For the first two thirds or so of Saturday’s encounter, Poyet picked a team capable of frustrating a very good Spurs side and restricting them, for the most part, to speculative long-range efforts.
Granted, two of those strikes from distance did come close to finding the net, with one hitting the post and the other the bar, but, given their ability to pass and move, Spurs’ general inability to penetrate Sunderland’s defence was promising.
Indeed, it was a role reversal of sorts for Poyet’s men.
In their previous outing at Loftus Road, Sunderland dominated the ball against QPR but were ultimately unable to break them down.
Spurs are a quality side and, as such, were always liable to create a chance or two more than Sunderland managed to at Loftus Road, but that’s not to say there were not overarching similarities between the patterns of the two games.
Just as we had a spell of dominance after Poyet brought on his subs, so too did QPR in the lead up to the goal that would prove to be their winner.
Another noticeable comparison between the two games was the impact of former Manchester United defenders; QPR were well organised, marshalled by Rio Ferdinand, while Wes Brown and John O’Shea were imperious in resisting the pass and move tide fronted by Christian Eriksen, Erik Lamela and a majestic Moussa Dembele.
The oft maligned O’Shea, in particular, was superb.
After a frenetic opening five minutes or so, where Spurs had all but one of their shots on target in the game, the central defensive duo were excellent in their reading of the game, intercepting and tackling their way through each wave of attack.
Unfortunately, as the second Spurs goal came so soon after half-time, it meant that Poyet’s changes only provided Sunderland with the impetus to grab a point rather than all three.
Even allowing for that, Sunderland were very close to snatching a win, which would have completely vindicated Poyet’s approach to the game; unfortunately, one of his substitutes, Will Buckley, placed his shot just high and wide of Hugo Lloris’s goal.
In the lead-up to that chance, another of the men he’d brought on, the lively Emanuele Giaccherini, played a sublime ball down the left channel for a marauding Patrick van Aanholt to collect with ease, before he slid it across to Buckley on the edge of the area.
Although Giaccherini was here last season, Buckley and the other substitute he introduced, Jordi Gomez, represent a type of player that was simply unavailable to Poyet last term.
Even then, he showed himself capable of changing games by switching personnel and systems. He’s managed to do so to decent effect twice in four league games this season too.
In Friday’s column, Stephen Goldsmith was right to point out the increasing quality and variety of our options on the bench, but what was also in evidence on Saturday, and other games this season, is something even more encouraging; a manager more than capable of making best use of the tools available to him.
With that in mind, as he takes his team to Burnley this Saturday, it will be interesting to see what tactics he employs.
Will there be a change to the starting XI against a side Sunderland will have more expectation of beating?
Or will Poyet persevere with the same players who plugged away so diligently against Spurs and, if need be, look to change things later in the game?
Whatever he does, the signs are generally encouraging.
If he and his team continue in this vein, Sunderland’s first league win of the season shouldn’t be too far away.
H The Wise Men Say podcast is available from every Monday, with SAFC debate from a variety of guests and post-match reaction from Gus Poyet. You can be stream it direct from wisemensay.co.uk or subscribe to it on iTunes.