How the dark arts of game management could revitalise Sutton United’s form

4 min

With just one win in their last eight league games, Saturday’s FA Cup First Round clash against non-league Farnborough is an ideal opportunity for Matt Gray’s Sutton United to recalibrate.

Playing their first game in the competition at Gander Green Lane since becoming a Football League side, it also provides a chance for the Us to fortify what had been a fortress up until the last month or so.

Their last home league outing against Walsall typified recent problems as Jacob Maddox’s 86th minute strike salvaged a draw for the ten-men Saddlers as Sutton continue to concede agonisingly late goals.

So far this season, the Us have conceded league goals past the 80th minute on five separate occasions in comparison to doing so in just eight games for the entire 2021/22 campaign.

While the most frustrating instances saw Sutton lose from winning positions by conceding twice in the final 10 minutes against both Doncaster and Salford, what is more alarming is this prevailing trend appears to be gathering momentum.

Although Sutton currently sit 17th in the table, the 11 points they have dropped due to late goals would have seen them comfortably in the Play-Off places. 

While Gray is ultimately the man tasked with solving the issue, he believes it is not a simple one as there appears to be no clear link between any of the late goals that have been conceded.

Speaking exclusively to London Football Scene, Gray said: “They are all totally different. 

“Are we under pressure? No. Have the subs cost us? No. Is there a common theme in why we concede? No.”

It is no secret Sutton are a side that enjoy not having the ball and punishing opposition on the break and via mistakes, with their average possession stats equalling 45%.

READ MORE: Is this Matt Gray’s toughest spell as Sutton United manager?

This style of play has worked wonders so far under Gray, yet it does invite pressure which has seen Sutton under the thumb at certain times this season when having games within their grasp.

Footballing sides such as Salford, whose late goals came in the 80th and 87th minute to win 2-1, will not only enjoy the majority of the ball but control the game and remain in Sutton’s half throughout.

That defeat wasn’t helped by Donovan Wilson’s 68th minute dismissal for an off-the-ball incident just six minutes after taking the lead, highlighting a lack of discipline within the team at a crucial moment.

Across the EFL’s lower echelons, the dark arts of time wasting and winning free-kicks is typical with teams looking to earn more fouls or encouraging fans and ball boys to keep hold of the ball in order to see out a good result.

Wilson’s dismissal, alongside that of Omar Bugiel’s most recent dismissal at Stockport after just three minutes, suggests a naivety in Sutton United’s game management which is not helping the cause.

In the case of Bugiel, it was a dubious decision which was heavily appealed by the opposition as dangerous and, without the use of the likes of VAR, the referee was left to make a decision based on enraged players and home fan reaction.

READ MORE: Dean Bouzanis may have left Sutton United for Reading, but his heart is still amber and gold

Sutton may not be getting the rub of the green, but the fact they have only collected three yellow cards beyond the 80th minute mark after 17 league games (five less than at the same stage last season) suggests more could be done in terms of the dark arts as well as ‘tactical fouls’ in order to see games out.

Whether it is Sutton’s positive culture reflecting through their displays, or they are not streetwise enough, the Us must discover some stewardship in order to turn performances into results with the game against Farnborough the perfect place to start.

Images provided with thanks to Paul Loughlin/Sutton United FC.

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