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Say No To Sunderland's Negative Tactics


It’s quite odd that in some circles Sunderland’s near draw against Manchester United at Old Trafford this past Saturday is being heralded as a massive achievement. What I saw was one of the most negative and anti-soccer performances in ages.

For the entire 90 minutes, Sunderland “parked their bus” in front of their goal and had ten, sometimes eleven, players blocking any advances made by Manchester United.

It almost worked except for a lucky bounce against the post that fell into the path of Nemanja Vidic who slotted in the late winner to give all three points to United.

This was a match that reminded me a lot of Manchester United’s opening game of last season when they drew 0-0 against Reading at Old Trafford. At that time, it seemed that Steve Coppell was hailed as the second coming. Of course, we all know that Reading’s season went downhill from there and they ended up getting relegated. So much for that one point that Reading achieved by playing negative football.

Sunderland’s tactics this past Saturday against Manchester United were painfully obvious. The Black Cats often had eight players in their penalty area, blocking Man United’s advances down the middle. You could say that their formation was a 8-1-1 with Djibril Cisse being the lone man up front. Even Cisse could be seen in Sunderland’s penalty area defending at times, too.

The sad but funny aspect of Sunderland’s tactics was that on the rare occasions when they start dribbling the ball in Manchester United’s half, the Sunderland players slowed down the tempo to allow players to catch the breath and to keep possession of the ball, at least for a few minutes. Most teams would relish the chance of attacking the opposition in the opponent’s half. Not Sunderland.

While Sunderland is no Manchester United, they do have enough quality on their team to at least try to win a match and play more attacking football. Take the case of Wigan’s performance against Arsenal from this weekend when Wigan played a contained game but at least tried to win the match. The scoreline was the same in both games, but Wigan walked away with their heads held up high after a spirited performance. The result may have been different if Wigan had worn their shooting boots Saturday.

Contrast Sunderland’s performance against Manchester United with that of Hull City. The Yorkshiremen played a lot more open game and came so close to drawing after a sensational comeback.

Yes, Sunderland played well against Manchester United if you consider that they followed interim-manager Ricky Sbragia’s instructions to a tee. They threw themselves into tackles, blocked a ton of shots and saved plenty of attempts at goal courtesy of Marton Fulop. But for the neutral observer, where’s the enjoyment in watching a team play such negative anti-football?

If Sunderland can take something out of the game, it’s that the club still has a lot of fight left in it and that their defense has improved significantly since the last match when they lost 4-1 at home against Bolton Wanderers. The other benefit for Sunderland is the hope that their team spirit has been restored.

The next huge test is this Saturday when Sunderland plays at home against West Bromwich Albion, another team in trouble of being relegated.

What is worrisome for Manchester United, meanwhile, is that more clubs will employ similar tactics like Sunderland. United, no matter how hard they tried, couldn’t seem to break down the wall of defenders that blocked their path toward goal. Even the combination of Rooney, Berbatov, Ronaldo, Anderson and Tevez couldn’t break down the Sunderland defense until Vidic tapped in the shot.

What are your thoughts about this past Saturday’s performance by Sunderland against Manchester United? Click the comments link below to share your feedback.

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    December 8, 2008 at 11:41 pm


  2. ls7

    December 8, 2008 at 12:11 pm

    I find the article and some of the comments to be a bit harsh. It's easy to decide what style to play when you can splash money on young superstars like Rooney, Ronaldo, etc. or pay over the top for an 'older' player like Berbatov.

    So what if Sunderland “parked the bus”? It's a valid tactical choice, come and break the defence down if you can. At this stage they need every point they can get and playng an open game against United would, in all probability, net them nothing. Yes they ended up with nothing anyway but the spirit in the side is surely better losing 1-0 in a close match then it is if they had been blown out 3-0 or 4-1.

    Considering the circumstances at Sunderland, it seemed like an easy game plan to get the players to follow. Defend and nick something from a set-piece if you can. Let's judge them on their season as a whole and not one or two games.

  3. Charlie

    December 8, 2008 at 10:43 am

    Seems a lot of the Big Four are walking onto the pitch this season to find “buses parked in front of the goal.” I suspect it's something we will be seeing more of. Sort of like how the so-called left wing lock changed NHL hockey — its boring as hell to watch, but strategically it works.

  4. BishopvilleRed

    December 8, 2008 at 9:15 am

    All I could think whilst watching that dross was, “Some poor bastard is watching a live Premiership match for the first time today, and they've been subjected to *this*”

    JB – it had better be about entertaining, because people won't pay top dollar to see eleven mules kick the ball away – especially since you can't even justify the tactics with a result.

    SAFCMark – if your back line is such swiss cheese, you SHOULD go down. If there's one thing we learned this year, it's that there are Championship sides out there who will come up and try to contribute to the Premiership, not make the news for dire football.

    DAVID WOODWARD – you might have an argument if it were true, but United DID break down your negative tactics and you have nothing to show for it – nothing as far as points are concerned, nothing as far as helping your reputation, nothing in the way of sympathy from the casual supporters when you go down.

    If you want to play conservatively and try to catch a superior side on the break, so be it. but 11 behind the ball with NO ambition to go forward is unacceptable. Nobody's cheering on the small guy if he's going to be so…small… about the prospect of competing against top sides.

    When you go all you'll hear are big sighs of relief that now Sunderland are gone, we might actually get to watch something worth paying for at the end of a long week.


  5. Bryan

    December 8, 2008 at 7:16 am

    I am astonished that there are fans that are condoning Sunderland's tactics last weekend. I'm a Liverpool supporter and although i would have loved to see United drop points, I hated the way Sunderland was playing on the weekend.

    If you can't mix it up with the big boys, remain at 18th till the end of the season.

  6. David Woodward

    December 8, 2008 at 6:07 am

    We did what we had to do better to try and scrape a 0-0 draw than lose 5 or 6-0, especially with the games we have coming up and our goal diffrence at the minute…i'm sorry all you Man Utd prawn sandwich brigade but maybe the fact Man Utd couldn't break Sunderland down is more of an issue than Sunderland's tactics

  7. SAFCMark

    December 8, 2008 at 5:21 am

    The person who wrote that article is an idiot. Look at when we went 1 down, the last 3 minuits when we tried to attack, they tore our defence apart, if we had pushed men forward for the whole 90 minuits then we would have lost 5 or 5 nil, had the worst goal difference in the league and that wouldn't have done much for our hopes of staying in the league. Get a grip you moron.

  8. ukredskin

    December 8, 2008 at 5:12 am

    This was so obviously a one-off because of the unusual circumstances leading up to this game. What about Sunderland v Arsenal this season, and there have been lots of games where we took the lead, but lost the match because of our desire to attack. This criticsm would be warranted if Sunderland approached every match like this, but not when it is a one-off.


    December 8, 2008 at 5:00 am

    I'm a season ticket holding Sunderland fan and I agree with this article 100%. We can't be expected to go to places like Old Trafford with a gung-ho 4-3-3 formation but I have to say I was embarrassed at our complete lack of ambition. I know you can argue that confidence is shattered at the moment and the club is (allegedly) in shock over Roy Keane's departure but we have a decent set of players that are capable of far more than this. Let's just hope that whoever comes in as next manager can recognise this.

  10. JB

    December 8, 2008 at 4:32 am

    typical clueless view of Premier League football by an American no-hoper. Its all about getting points not providing entertainment. If you want entertainment go watch a tv show halfwit!

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