Amid the chaos of Paolo Di Canio’s reign at Sunderland, nobody really talked about the tactics–yet in some ways that was the most disappointing aspect.
We knew he would be difficult to get on with, we expected his dictatorial approach would rub players up the wrong way, we knew there would be tantrums and ructions. But tactics were the thing he was supposed to be good at: this was a man, after all, who came top of his class when completing his coaching certificate at Coverciano.
Perhaps there was some greater purpose. Perhaps in time, it would have been clear what Di Canio’s strategy was. He spoke of how he tried to do too much too soon in his time at Swindon; it may be he was phasing in tactical changes and that by Christmas he would have moved away from the 4-4-2 with which he began the season.
Maybe the issue was the players not doing what he wanted them to do—his attack on Cabral, the holding midfielder brought in from Basel, certainly suggested a deep-lying frustration. After all, whatever else he is, Di Canio is no fool: he might not understand footballers, but he understands football. Whatever the reason, the fact is that each of the five league games he was in charge of this season, Di Canio played a 4-4-2 and in every single one of them Sunderland were, if not overrun in midfield, then at least vulnerable to opponents coming at them through the middle.
He tried various pairings of Cabral, Sebastian Larsson, David Vaughan, Craig Gardner and Ki Sung-Yeung but none were quite right. Cabral lacked physicality, Larsson is slow (and his crossing so good he is surely better deployed wide), Vaughan lacking in physical presence, Gardner lacked composure, Ki lacked pace. Pair any two of them and there was an always an element missing, which perhaps explains why, by the end, Di Canio had offered an olive branch to Lee Cattermole, a player who, for all his recklessness, can be a top-class holding midfielder, playing with energy and purpose.
Or there was another option, which was to leave out a centre-forward and play a third central midfielder, which is what Kevin Ball did when he took over as caretaker manager. There had been patches of games under Di Canio—the 20 minutes after half-time against Arsenal most notably, when Sunderland found an equaliser and forced Arsenal into the back foot—when they had attacked with great gusto, when fans could draw positives.
But even then there had been an air of frenzy about their play, a sense that at any moment the storm could blow out. Although Sunderland lost both games under Ball, at home to Liverpool and Manchester United, there were at least periods of both when Sunderland played well and had a measure of control. It helped, of course, that he had Cattermole back—and fit—but in a sense his task was made easier by the injury to Steven Fletcher—which meant Ball never had to decide which of his two front-line strikers to drop.
If Gus Poyet plays a 4-3-3, as he tended to at Brighton, that leaves him with a major decision for Saturday’s game at Swansea. Fletcher and Jozy Altidore are two of Sunderland’s best, highest-profile and most expensive players and the temptation to play both is understandable. One, though, must be left out—perhaps even to play in tandem as Shane Long and Romelu Lukaku did at West Brom last season, one wearing out the opposition before making way for the fresher man to come and make hay.
Poyet’s other problem is that, after a start that has yielded a single point in seven games, there is no margin for error. There is some comfort for Sunderland in that they are only three points worse off than in equivalent fixtures last year, but if they are to stay up, Poyet has to find the right balance and quickly. It will almost certainly be with three in midfield.