As a child you’re taught that scoring more goals than the opposition will win you a game. When you reach your early teens, coaches put more emphasis on the defensive aspect of the game. The famous “defence wins championships” cliché is drilled into your cranium and it allows you to understand the game from two different perspectives, attacking and defending. By the age of 16-18 you’re not solely attacking or defending, you’re doing both.
Compared to other countries around the world, that learning curve is a few years behind. Now I’m not here to rant on how far behind our youth development system is in Canada, because we’re well aware of that. Despite not focusing on our youth’s technical abilities and tactical awareness, we do instill into our children’s minds that goals and solidity at the back will lead to success.
As we head into the final stretch of the Premier League season, Martin O’Neill’s Sunderland side struggle to score goals and concede far too many. Sunderland currently sits in 14th place and is four points clear of safety, which is very worrying for Black Cats fans across the globe. They’re set to finish with a lower point tally then last year, and look like a team declining rather than improving.
O’Neill spent £22m on winger Adam Johnson and striker Steven Fletcher, and also acquired Louis Saha and Carlos Cuellar. Saha has struggled to stay fit and regain the form he had at Everton and Manchester United, which is why Johnson, Fletcher and Cuellar are the only summer signings in O’Neill’s starting lineup that is set up in a 4-4-1-1. Since O’Neill’s arrival to England in the summer of 2006, he’s been keen on playing in a 4-4-2, but has also opted for 4-3-3’s and 4-5-1’s when needed.
At Villa O’Neill had an abundance of strikers, in the likes of John Carew, Gabriel Abonlahor and Emile Heskey to name a few. Not only were these strikers aerial threats, they had the ability to hold up the play and allow the Villa midfield to join the attack. Not much has changed in O’Neill’s tactical approach to the game during his time in the Premier League, his teams tend to defend in two banks of four, and he likes his wingers to get to the touchline and whip balls into danger areas. The difference is, his Villa side was filled with more talent compared to the Sunderland side at his disposal.
O’Neill joined Sunderland in December 2011, and he steered the Sunderland ship clear, after a poor start to the season under Steve Bruce. Now on loan Juventus striker Nicklas Bendtner would lead the line with Stephane Sessegnon behind him and with Connor Wickham coming off the bench. Now many would assume that the arrival of a £12m striker in Fletcher would help the team improve, but without fixing gradual problems in the team, such as creativity in the midfield, and strength in defence, some fans might argue that the money wasn’t well spent in the summer.
Fletcher has netted eight times for Sunderland in 23 appearances scoring one third of the club’s Premier League goals and has tied the club’s leading goal scoring tally of last year achieved by Bendtner, Sessegnon and Seb Larsson. In a Premier League that lacks quality defending, it’s essential that you have the ability to create and score goals.
Sunderland fails to do either.
They lack quality players that can provide creativity, which is why there is a heavy reliance on the winger’s distribution into the box. With all the good Fletcher has done for Sunderland this year, is it possible that his introduction to the side is depriving the team of goals?
The Scottish international is a clinical finisher that usually gets on the end of plays and has a knack for scoring goals as his stats show. During his time at Sunderland, coaches have started to mark him out of games easily, after an impressive start to the season. He’s usually left as an isolated figure upfront as the space between Fletcher and Sessegnon is far too large for them to constantly connect with one another.
In a game against Manchester United at Old Trafford this season, Fletcher came off at half time injured. Fletcher was anonymous in that half, as was the Sunderland attack. They found themselves down 2-0 with Connor Wickham entering the game, and with the way the game had transpired, you could only imagine worse in the second half.
Sunderland lost the game 3-1, but in the second half they were a far better side going forward, and frankly could have scored a few more goals. Wickham caused Rio Ferdinand and Chris Smalling several problems, whereas Sunderland had trouble getting into United’s final third when Fletcher was the lone striker. Wickham was successful in aerial duels against the United defence, and he used his strength to hold up the play and allow the deep Sunderland midfield to join the attack.
When they aren’t playing at the Stadium of Light, Sunderland will defend deep and hope to mount successful counter attacks against technically superior sides. But when presented the opportunity to take control of the game, they struggle.
Now let’s make it clear that Connor Wickham is not the answer and Steven Fletcher isn’t the problem, but Sunderland going forward as a unit lack fluidity, and Martin O’Neill’s team could be a target man away from becoming a competitive mid-table side. Wide areas are important for this team, and Johnson, occasionally Larsson and James McClean have supplied balls into the box that defender’s clear at ease. They haven’t been on their best form this season, but due to the lack of numbers getting into the box, opposing centre backs make easy work of beating Fletcher in aerial battles.
Fletcher’s goals are great for his career, and to some it might look like the only thing keeping Sunderland from the relegation zone. He’ll always score goals, but Sunderland needs more than just HIS goals. Fletcher hasn’t made his teammates better, and with the way O’Neill sets his team up, he needs to be more than just a goal scorer.
Solely it’s not Fletcher’s fault.
Strikers are supposed to score goals, but managers are also supposed to purchase strikers who fit their system. It’s also their job to get the best out of their striker.
Also, if another striker can add more to the team’s dimension going forward, then shouldn’t he start over the illustrious goal scorer?
Whether O’Neill can bring in another striker in January, opt to play a 4-4-2 with Fletcher playing off of Wickham or possibly push Sessegnon higher up the pitch will be vital for the club going forward. Sunderland might be good enough to stay in the Premier League due to the large amount of weak sides in England now, but the team doesn’t look to be heading in the right direction.
Teams are able to get away with lackadaisical defending, but unlike Sunderland, they can create and score goals.
Steven Fletcher may not be the problem in Sunderland’s push for mediocrity, but he’s definitely not the solution.
He’s far from it.
The real question that O’Neill needs to solve is, who or what is the answer to Sunderland’s goal scoring woes?