Friday spotlight: Bold and brave’s the way ahead for Sunderland

Gus Poyet watches his men in action at Liverpool in midweek
Gus Poyet watches his men in action at Liverpool in midweek
Have your say

GUS Poyet was unamused that his daring team selection for Sunderland’s game at Liverpool on Wednesday night leaked out prematurely.

With hours to go before kick-off at Anfield, word was openly circulating that the Black Cats would be going with defensive midfielders Lee Cattermole and Liam Bridcutt sitting in front of a five-man defence, while Emanuele Giaccherini would be handed a free role behind a front two of Jozy Altidore and Connor Wickham.

Tactically, Poyet had every right to be angry and frustrated that a team selection – part of whose impact would be dependent on it coming as a surprise to Liverpool – had somehow emerged into the public domain.

But while it was a disappointment and a concern for the club’s leadership that someone had let the side down by letting the line-up out of the bag, the response among Sunderland fans was interesting.

Broadly, the reaction was one of interest, enthusiasm and approval.

It was clear that Sunderland needed to be ultra-defensive against the most lethal strike pairing in the Premier League but also encouraging that Poyet was still willing to go two up front and to supplement that attack with the creative possibilities of unpredictable Italian international Giaccherini.

It showed a willingness not to be slavish to a preferred system, not to be blinded by loyalty to a familiar set of players, not to scared of the innovative or unusual.

On the night, the radical approach bore dividends.

Liverpool, expected to win by a street before kick-off, managed only one goal in the first half.

And in the second half, when Adam Johnson and Ki Sung-Yueng were introduced from the bench, Sunderland looked genuinely threatening at times and might have pinched a point had they taken a good late opportunity which came their way.

There was a lesson to be learned here and that’s that fortune favours the brave – admittedly not in terms of points gained on the night but in terms of reviving a team which has become moribund and threatened to look short of ideas and confidence in recent weeks.

If Sunderland are to go down, they have to go down all guns blazing.

Their stay in the Premier League, if it is to end, deserves, for the sake of their fans and their own self-respect, to end with a bang rather than a whimper.

Poyet tried something new at Anfield.

And if there was one word to describe it, it was this: refreshing.

It was refreshing to see a side so short of goals opting for two strikers up front; refreshing to see Sunderland being smart in packing their defence, refreshing to see experimentation both in formation and team selection.

I wrote in my match report of last weekend’s Norwich defeat that there was a real danger Sunderland were sleepwalking to relegation.

Poyet has rung the changes, has shaken things up and, as a result, got a response.

Now he must carry that into Sunderland’s remaining games.

Surely it is inconceivable that he will not go for two strikers up front again on Monday when West Ham come to the Stadium of Light in a must-win game for the Wearsiders – and the thought of a Connor Wickham-Fabio Borini partnership up top is an attractive one.

It also has to be near certain that Ki and Johnson – as eye-catching at Anfield, as they have been anonymous at Carrow Road – will also be given a chance to take the game to the Londoners from the off.

And surely Sunderland have to start Monday’s game at the sort of tempo which will rouse the home crowd from the beginning, rather than the patient, plodding style which tends to offer confidence and comfort to the visitors.

Sunderland fans deserve more of the positive approach they saw from their players on Monday, even if their team was set up defensively.

Poyet will change his system and his selection for Monday, as he should, but he must keep the same positive intent.

His players found a change as good as a rest.

And Poyet will have noted that the team was in danger of losing faith in a system which had Altidore carrying the bulk of the attacking impetus without being able to make any real impact from one week to the next.

The remaining games are down to single figures now.

It is the business end of the season and what is clear is that Sunderland need victories.

The remaining away games are all against top-class opposition and it is clear that Poyet will have to box clever and hedge his bets in some of them, looking to take a point against the odds.

At home, though, he has to go for it now.

He spoke of a time in the season when he would have to take a gamble in games.

That time is now.

Sunderland have to go for it – starting with West Ham on Monday.

And after the disappointment of the limp defeat to Norwich, it is encouraging and refreshing that Poyet appears to be ready to grasp the nettle and make the bold and brave decisions.

Sunderland fans will not easily accept a tame and lifeless relegation battle – the signs of which have been there in some recent games.

They will, however, live with a team and a management which has decided that if they are to go down, they will go down with spirit, scrapping and snapping all the way.

Twitter @sunechograeme

* Don’t miss out on the biggest and best coverage of SAFC and the local football scene, plus Tony Gillan’s View From The Bridge, Yesterdays and much more – see the online Football Echo. It’s out tomorrow on this website from around 6.45pm.