“CARE about the pass,” stresses Gus Poyet as Sunderland’s players run through various drills at their Portugese training camp, writes Chris Young
It’s a noticeable statement from the Sunderland boss.
Watching Sunderland’s players at work on the immaculate pitch at their team hotel, it’s immediately apparent how things have changed over the last 12 months.
A year ago, Sunderland’s pre-season graft was centred around cardio work.
One of Paolo Di Canio’s favourite drills was to shout out a number corresponding to a spot on the field and then order his players to sprint there as quickly as possible, with the aim of boosting their reactions.
When it came to running, Sunderland’s squad had no issues. It was perhaps one of the reasons why they enjoyed relatively decent fortunes regarding injuries.
But Sunderland’s match sharpness was simply not up to scratch.
Think back to how Sunderland would wilt after the hour mark during Di Canio’s brief tenure at the start of the season.
This time around there’s a stark contrast; a huge focus on Poyet’s penchant for possession football.
There was plenty of long-distance running done at the start of this pre-season. As Wes Brown jokes, fitness coach Antonio Pintas was not the most popular member of the Sunderland camp during the first week back.
But now everything is geared towards Poyet’s philosophy.
After a vigorous warm-up, training begins with small coned-off possession exercises, where two players are tasked with winning the ball.
From that point, the size of the area used for the particular drill gradually increases, while the objective changes too.
But tellingly, in a 90-minute training session - the first of two yesterday - Sunderland never work in an area more than half a pitch.
Everything is designed to improve Sunderland’s possession capabilities in as crowded a space as possible.
This shouldn’t particularly come as a surprise.
Poyet’s reputation at former club Brighton was based on the style of football practised by the Seagulls and it was evident within the first four games of his Sunderland tenure that the Black Cats would use a similar approach during his stewardship at the Stadium of Light.
By the end of last season, Poyet’s philosophy had properly kicked into gear.
But after Poyet has enjoyed a full pre-season to work with his squad, Brown believes there will be yet more progress on the pass, pass and pass again strategy.
“We tried to do that a little bit last season and we’ve got the start of the season to practice that now,” said Brown.
“The gaffer likes to keep the ball and a lot of training sessions are to do with that work.
“We sort of showed it at times last season, even though it was different circumstances.
“But this season we can start afresh, keep the ball and play the style that the gaffer likes to play.
“We got all the long distance running in early doors. That’s pretty much normal.
“That lasted maybe 10 days.
“Obviously that has come down and now we’re doing sprints and faster work with the feet.”
The other intriguing aspect of yesterday’s session at Sunderland’s training base was a focus on finishing.
Sunderland’s modest return of 41 goals in 38 Premier League outings was not the worst record in the top flight. Only two teams in the bottom half of the table managed a better tally.
But since the departure of Darren Bent, the Black Cats have struggled to offer a consistent threat in front of goal, although fit-again Steven Fletcher encouragingly looks a far sharper presence on the training ground than the lost figure from last season.
Sizeable parts of yesterday’s session were devoted to shooting and crossing practice.
Sunderland will hope to put that into practice in tonight’s final friendly here in Portugal against Vitoria Setubal after netting just once - from the penalty spot - in their first two games on the Algarve.
The goal haul from friendlies is not a huge concern though.
The big focus at this stage is on minutes on the field and given the thread-bare squad at his Poyet’s disposal, there has been plenty of opportunity for those on Sunderland’s books to enjoy game-time.
Centre-half Brown was one of six to play the full 90 minutes against CD Nacional on Wednesday.
He added: “We’ve had two good games and we’ve worked on our fitness. We’re looking forward to tonight’s game before we go back.
“It was good the other night to get 90 minutes. In the last 10, you could see the fitness coming in.”
If those minutes and this time in Portugal can ensure Sunderland avoid the horror show from last August, then it will be job done from the Algarve.