Jermain Defoe Signing Only Part of Solution for Goal-Shy Sunderland

Jonathan Wilson@@jonawilsFeatured ColumnistJanuary 14, 2015

Tottenham Hotspurs' Jermain Defoe is seen wearing a black armband as a sign of respect to mark the life of former South African President Nelson Mandela, during their English Premier League soccer match against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light, Sunderland, England, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)
Scott Heppell/Associated Press

Good results at the end of a season can cover a multitude of problems. Sunderland’s absurd escape in May when, having been decidedly mediocre for months, they suddenly won at Chelsea and Manchester United in a run of four successive victories—appended to a draw at Manchester City—brought giddy scenes of celebration at the Stadium of Light.

However, the underlying problems remained and Sunderland have carried on much as they were. The probable arrival of Jermain Defoe, per Scott Wilson of the Northern Echo, may be a short-term fix, but no more than that.

This season, really, has been a case of Sunderland achieving the same but at a different pace. Last season the late flurry meant they ended up with 38 points from 38 games; this season they have 20 from 21, 11 of them secured through draws.

Had they beaten Hull City on Boxing Day, nobody, probably, would have been too concerned: They have home games against Burnley, Queens Park Rangers and West Bromwich Albion coming up. Win those and Sunderland would be as good as safe. 

The problem is that Sunderland were abject against Hull and, after taking an early lead, were beaten 3-1. They have won only eight of their last 40 home games and there is no confidence any more that teams in the bottom half of the table will be dismissed at the Stadium of Light.

If anything, the squad this season is weaker than it was last. Fabio Borini brought imagination and finishing, while Ki Sung-Yueng and Jack Colback gave bite and class to the midfield.

None of those three have really been replaced: Ricky Alvarez was, presumably, supposed to fulfil the Borini role, but he has been injured a lot and ineffective when he has played. Jack Rodwell is yet to impose himself in midfield and, while Costel Pantilimon probably is an upgrade on Vito Mannone and Patrick van Aanholt has impressed at left-back, the net result has been negative.

Although the 8-0 defeat at Southampton caught the eye, the problem has been more at the front end of the team. Although 31 goals conceded gives Sunderland the joint sixth-worst defensive record, 15 of them came in the game against Southampton and the two matches against Manchester City.

There have also been seven clean sheetsa tally bettered by only Southampton, Chelsea and Swansea Cityas well as seven games in which they’ve let in a single goal. Only five times have they scored more than a goal in a game and on 10 occasions they’ve failed to score at all; more than any team other than Aston Villa.

Scott Heppell/Associated Press

It would be too easy to put the blame on Steven Fletcher, who has often toiled fruitlessly at centre-forward. Last season, Sunderland were saved by a sudden bust of form from Connor Wickham, who tends to have operated on the left this season, and there may perhaps be an argument for giving him more of a run through the middle.

But the truth is that whoever plays at centre-forward just hasn’t been given the service. Adam Johnson has flickered at times, but he is the only real source of imaginationand that’s where Ki and Colback have really been missed.

Although both were at times criticised for playing sideways too often, they retained possession well and had the capacity to construct attacks. Maybe they were at times a little studied and over-cautious but this season Sunderland seem to have only two modessitting deep and rolling the ball around at the back (Gus Poyet’s preference for possession football is admirable, but there is an astonishing lack of pace to Sunderland’s passing at times) and madcap, frenetic getting the ball forward.

Poyet’s 4-1-4-1, effective as it has been in stifling opponents, as against Chelsea and Newcastle United, perhaps contributes to that, often leaving the central striker isolated. It’s not immediately clear how Defoe fits into that shape, so it may be Sunderland start playing two up front in some games. Defoe’s finishing may make Sunderland sharper, but there needs also to be an improvement in the supply.

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