Analysis: Sunderland need a settled attack to help their fragile defence

Jeremain Lens
Jeremain Lens
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During a tête-à-tête with Fabio Borini at the Academy of Light this week, the Sunderland man was inevitably asked about the emergence of fellow forward Duncan Watmore.

In an international break dominated by the brooding sense of doom over Sunderland’s league position, Watmore’s continued rise is one of the few positives amidst the apathy over yet another relegation battle.

In just 12 top flight outings, Sunderland have boasted NINE different combinations in their front three

Sam Allardyce opted to use Watmore on the left-hand side of Sunderland’s attack against Southampton a fortnight ago, rather than restore fit-again Fabio Borini to the starting XI.

Does that equate to the pair being in direct competition for that starting spot then?

Not a bit of it, bristled Borini.

“We’re not fighting for one place,” he said.

“I can play in four positions – up front where Fletch (Steven Fletcher) plays, as an attacking midfielder where Ola (Toivonen) plays in a 4-4-2 or out wide.”

Borini is not alone in offering attacking versatility to Allardyce.

Watmore, Jeremain Lens, Adam Johnson and arguably Jermain Defoe are all capable of operating as wide, central or deep-lying forwards.

In one-sense, that’s a blessing to a manager, who doesn’t have to shoehorn a player into an unfamiliar role.

But is it also part of the problem?

The lack of continuity in Sunderland’s back-line has been a key factor behind the Black Cats boasting the worst defensive record in the Premier League.

Injuries, suspensions and glaringly awful clangers have prompted those changes though.

However, at the other end of the field, Sunderland have been even less settled.

In just 12 top- flight outings, Sunderland have boasted NINE different combinations in their front three.

That has not necessarily resulted in a desperate lack of goals, with Sunderland’s tally of 13 only bettered by Norwich and Chelsea in the bottom half of the table.

But when it comes to defending from the front and forming some cohesion in a flawlessly-drilled team shape... well, Sunderland’s average of conceding more than two goals per game demonstrates that the lack of attacking continuity is causing problems at the back.

Full-backs need that unspoken knowledge over when the wide midfielders will dovetail in behind them if they are going forwards.

Likewise, the central midfielders need to know the probability of the centre-forward laying it off for their attacking bursts, albeit Fletcher has arguably been Sunderland’s most consistent performer over the last month or so.

The problem for Allardyce is that he doesn’t know his best team.

Nobody does.

On paper, Borini, Lens and Johnson would arguably be the strongest supporting trio, if Allardyce persists with the lone striker system.

But then where does that leave Defoe, who has shown enough encouragement to warrant a sustained run-out in an orthodox front two alongside Fletcher.

Allardyce says he is beginning to make up his mind on those players he inherited, but there is an immediacy to a job which has the air of a thankless task at present.

He needs to land upon a first-choice team, and stick to it, so that everyone is aware of their task to improve Sunderland’s brittle defence.