PROFESSIONAL footballers tend to think journalists set too much store by, and waste too much time on, the importance of formations in football.
Yes, they agree, the system is important – you’re told what to do and you have to play to whatever pattern the manager wants.
But when it comes down to it, most argue, that it’s all about how individuals perform on the day – whether they win their individual battles or not; whether someone happens to hit sparkling form or has a stinker.
Footballers win matches, not formations, they’ll say.
And for all the searingly insightful analysis in the world, all the column inches we squander on the appliance of science; the importance of pure, simple luck, they’ll point out, is the most under-rated factor in football.
That’s something that might have crossed the minds of Phil Bardsley or Steven Fletcher last weekend as they reflected on their own goals at Swansea.
“You analyse it but when it comes down to it the ball is travelling at great speed and 10 inches makes all the difference,” Poyet told us this week. “If the ball hits Phil or Steven just 10 inches from where it did, it’s a completely different outcome.”
The importance of luck.
And yet when it comes to this weekend – and the match between Sunderland and Newcastle – a game in which luck often does play its part, given the explosive atmosphere and fast and furious nature of the encounter, I can’t help but feel that the formation Gus Poyet selects could be of crucial significance.
Last week, he chose a 4-1-4-1 formation – Lee Cattermole in front of the defence, Steven Fletcher the lone striker.
He is not expected to repeat the tactic.
Instead, he is likely to opt for either the 4-5-1 formation Kevin Ball used so promisingly against Liverpool and Manchester United, or a more orthodox 4-4-2, with probably Steven Fletcher or Jozy Altidore primed to attack what is perceived to be Newcastle’s soft centre.
Both formations have their merits – one of which is that it will keep the pubs and clubs of Sunderland full of debate as to which is the right way to go!
A five-man midfield should make Sunderland defensively stronger – an important consideration for a team short on confidence and without a clean sheet all season.
There’s also the fact that Seb Larsson and Craig Gardner look so much more effective in a three-man central midfield than a two.
And there’s no getting away from acknowledging Sunderland’s best performances of the season has come with this formation.
The argument against a two-man midfield is that the Black Cats will be swept away by Newcastle.
But Poyet has been hugely impressed by Ki Sung-Yeung and might back him to outplay Yohan Cabaye, while Lee Cattermole looks to win the battle again with Cheick Tiote.
How appealing must be the thought, too, for Poyet, of being bold in his first derby in charge – taking the game to Newcastle by fielding two strikers against the weakened central defence regarded as the Magpies’ potential Achilles heel.
Two strikers would be a statement of confidence and intent.
If goals win matches, then two strikers are likely to be better than one in any goalmouth situation.
Poyet will think long and hard about his options and Sunderland fans must hope he gets it spot on in a derby where the stakes are so sky-high.
Formations will be crucial on Sunday because Poyet has to select the system which will allow the players at his disposal to produce their most effective possible performance.
In one respect, though, the old professionals are, of course, right – formations are important but it will all come down to the players on the day.
Unless Sunderland’s players show courage, desire, vision, temperament and skill; unless they are a united group who play with an indomitable will and sense of both history and responsibility, unless they do all these things, then the cleverest game plan in the world, will come to nothing. Twitter @sunechograeme