Forget Paul Heckingbottom - Sunderland's ideal next manager is staring Kyril Louis-Dreyfus in the face
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I am going to try and leave the emotions to one side. For now. In truth, I still need time to process them. On the one hand, the one that deals with the dour drag of rationality, I can understand why Sunderland have decided to part company with Tony Mowbray; five defeats in eight, including back-to-back losses against apparent relegation candidates, and an apparent lack of a tactical Plan B beyond punting the ball out to Jack Clarke and hoping for the best was always going to cost him. On the other, last season was one of the most enjoyable, entertaining, and wildly optimistic I have ever had as a supporter of the club. In short, I am conflicted.
But there will be time for soul-searching eulogies in due course. Right now, the Black Cats and their board of business buzz word linguists need to find a suitable replacement - and swiftly. Steady hand Mike Dodds will likely take charge of Saturday's lunchtime kick-off against West Brom, but beyond that the hunt for a permanent manager must not be allowed to trudge on through idle speculation and into inevitable discontentment.
The way I see it, there are two obvious directions in which said managerial rummage could be pushed. One is the well-trodden path of the old school; a Championship-accustomed name who knows the division better than he knows his own children, and who would, to a certain extent, be ideologically in line with the likes of a Mowbray or an Alex Neil before him. Paul Heckingbottom, for instance, would fall under this umbrella. The second is a more radical appointment, perhaps a young, trendy, almost certainly bespectacled coach from the continent who espouses a personal mantra which requires a postgraduate degree to decipher, and who is used to kneeling, prostrate, at the altar of data analysis. Or, as one casual observer on X (FKA Twitter) wrote: 'A turbo nerd called Jens'.
But perhaps there is a third, secret way. One of the early prospective candidates touted by the bookmaking oracles is Kevin Muscat, him of Neil Warnock's smug mockery fame. The former Crystal Palace, Wolves, and Millwall defender has put a life of aggravating tetchy Yorkshiremen behind him, and is now at the helm of Japanese outfit Yokohama F. Marinos following a successful stint in Australia with Melbourne Victory, and a considerably less successful stint in Belgium with Sint-Truiden.
The 50-year-old is thriving in Kanagawa Prefecture too. In 2022, having succeeded the Celtic-bound Ange Postecoglou a year prior, he guided Yokohama to the J-League title, adding the trophy to a personal cabinet that already boasts two A-Leagues and an FFA Cup. The man likes his letters. (We don't talk about what happened in Belgium. There is a Napoleonic quality to Muscat, in that sense.)
Most pertinently for the interests of Sunderland, and in particular their glittering kindergarten of diaphanous wizards, however, is the fact that he has done it all with a style of play that feels ideally suited to the traits and needs of this blossoming squad. Defensively, Muscat prioritises solidity and stability - two qualities that the Black Cats have not always exhibited in abundance of late. During their title-winning campaign, his Yokohama side conceded just 35 goals in 34 matches, the joint-lowest in the Japanese top flight.
It is in possession where Muscat's teams truly shine, though. Often resembling a 4-2-4 when going forward, his sides look to goad and bait their opposition into a press before countering at pace - seeking to exploit the space in behind a backline who, more often than not, are being kept occupied by four forwards. For a team like Sunderland, who boast an unusual heft of sorcery on the flanks, and who have lacked a meaningful spearhead to their attack ever since Ross Stewart selfishly got injured back in January, that feels like a tactical approach which would go some way towards resolving their nagging woes.
What's more, Muscat has had notable success employing these gambits. The silverware speaks for itself, but perhaps most telling is that during his time in Japan he has registered a win percentage of 57.3%, with an average of 1.89 points per game. For context, Mowbray's win percentage on Wearside was 40%, with an average of 1.46 points per game.
None of this is to say that Sunderland will hire Muscat, or that there aren't potential hires out there who aren't just as good, if not better. But certainly, when conversations are had about who the Black Cats' next permanent appointment should be, the Yokohama manager should be in amongst them.