Can Cats Count to Ten – Sunderland Thoughts

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Latics 1-1 Sunderland
Saturday 11th September 2010

As much as we love it, as much as we paint it as an art and revel in its occasional moments of sheer, as much as we’d like to pretend otherwise, football is a game of clichés.  One match of the day script is pretty much interchangeable with another, Sunday Supplement works on a four weekly cycle and Chris Kamara is like a pull string talking action man who came out of the factory with only half a set of working phrases.  If you can manage to get something intelligible out of a manager or a player then it’s only going to be the same bland stuff that they fans out with the last time they had a result/performance like this one.  I like to pick on Harry Redknapp but this flowchart could quite easily be adapted for anyone in the inside circle of the English game.

But some clichés are clichés because they’re mostly true.  A match report for Saturday’s game, once it had dealt with the inevitable (almost clichéd) dismissal of Cattermole could have been written in two lines.  “It’s harder to play against ten men than it is eleven” followed by “you make your own luck in this game”.  Shall we go home now?  You can, I’m going to waffle on for a bit.

I used to laugh at the notion that it could be harder to play with a numerical advantage, but I was also quite comfortable with the concept of life on Mars and believed in the prospect of a socialist paradise, but time, and John Beck have a way of making you old and cynical so it didn’t take me that long into my second decade to realise that not every team sets out to take all three points and even when they do, it doesn’t take much to shake them into weary pragmatism. 

A man sent off?  The aforementioned Mr Beck used to run special training sessions on the expectation that his ‘robust’ sides would end up with ten men, these days ‘let’s park the bus, get two banks of four (or one if four, one of five) and hope for something on the break’ is the modus operandi for a good half of the Premier League so playing a man down should be almost second nature.  As Bobby says, it means the players don’t need to think, and as everyone knows, that’s the favourite mode of the modern footballers (yes, I’m aware that’s another cliché but a fairly illustrative one).

You don’t have to be a tactical genius to see that’s where Sunderland ended up on Saturday.  Keeping things tight, running Latics into the middle of the park, into crowds denying ourselves the space we should have had after the sending off.  Latics played into their hands, Rodallega and later N’Zogbia too willing to stick to the script and come inside on their stronger feet.  The occasional raid from an overlapping did the trick, but it was only really with the introduction of the energetic and imaginative Di Santo that Latics started to get in positions behind the visitors’ back line, and if you’re playing face to face with two lines of defenders then you’re always likely to come off worse.

So nothing Sunderland did came down to fortune, but there have been plenty of suggestions of luck levelled at Latics’ late equaliser.  Obviously that’s just nonsense, one goal after almost 65% of possession and comfortably over half the play in the opposition half can’t be called lucky.  It was left late and it wasn’t the clearest cut of chances but talking about luck suggests that at some level it was undeserved.  Latics fully deserved to get something out of the game, perhaps more than they did.

So why the talk of making your own luck? 

I wholly get the point that Latics aren’t in this to play the percentage game, but you can take the exact opposite too far.  There are occasions where it pays to take the early shot, to get to the by-line and put a cross in, or even get an early cross in from full back, hell, I’d go even further and say that there are occasions where it’s ok to play for the free kick, hold the ball and take the foul rather than play another pass. 

The games about getting in positions where you have a chance of scoring, not all of those will be perfect chances but taking them on might just help out just as well.  Rodallega is a perfect example of this.  I’ve lost count of the times this season where he’s had the ball 20 or so yards out, gone to hit it and decided to reset him self a little further inside.  I do remember him doing it three times in one move against (I think) Chelsea. 

Whether this approach is to order, or through a lack of confidence, I’m not sure, but you have to wonder what could happen if he took more chances first time, when the defence isn’t set for them.  Firstly he might score more, and even if not he might force more saves ultimately creating chances the sort of six yard scruffy chances that it would appear that someone like Boselli might thrive on, thirdly, you might get a corner.  The worst case is that you surrender possession and start all over again, which is a pretty certain outcome anyway if you’re only taking the shot at the third opportunity.

That’s what I call making your own luck, Paul Merson or some similarly one dimensional pundit might call it buying a ticket to the lottery.  If you want to give a more intelligent label then let’s go with recognising that the situation you are is not going to improve and it’s better to use the element of surprise than letting the defence steel themselves for the shot.  Maybe it’s not perfect, but it’s miles away from the regimental “hit the front man” standard of the lower echelons of the league.

Overall I think that’s credit is due on both sides for putting on an entertaining game which is rare in similar circumstances.  I think that the bottom line is that the result was disappointing given the amount of chances that we had but that anything stronger ignores the god job that the visitors did in defending after the sending off.  The dismissal might have changed the game, but it doesn’t make it any easier to speculate about what the result would have been without it. 

I’ve heard people talking as if this was a step backwards for Latics or another sign of our inconsistency, for me this was another big step in the right direction.  In general we handled the game well, stuck to the game plan (for all but a ten minute wobble following their goal) and showed enough resilience to get the goal back.  I’m almost tempted to say that it looks as if we’re out of the woods but we’re probably not, but at least the trees are thinning.

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