Chris Young column - So how does Jermain Defoe fit into Sunderland’s system?

Jermain Defoe
Jermain Defoe
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JERMAIN DEFOE... He scores goals... Sunderland don’t score goals... SIGN HIM.

That was the understandable logic which entered the heads of Sunderland supporters when news began to emerge on the other side of the Atlantic on Saturday night that Toronto FC were proposing a swap deal involving Defoe and Jozy Altidore.

Should Defoe’s move be completed in the next 24 hours – and there is every chance it will – then a proven goalscorer in the midst should be the first step in solving Sunderland’s attacking problems, which reached chronic levels against Liverpool last weekend.

Defoe may be 32, but he is still quick, still gets in behind defences and very much “sniffs” chances – a problem which Gus Poyet bemoaned after Sunderland’s stalemate at 10-man Aston Villa last month.

The big debate that Defoe’s imminent capture has already prompted is how to make the most out of the England international.

Does Poyet stick rigidly with the 4-1-4-1 system which he has kept faith in throughout this season?

Or does he have to tinker and deploy Defoe in an orthodox front two?

Defoe is no stranger to operating in a lone striker role. He did it fairly frequently under Andre Villas-Boas at Spurs, when Emanuel Adebayor was persona non grata.

Yet Defoe is clearly not the same shape as a Connor Wickham or Steven Fletcher in providing a targetman focal point.

He likes to play off a strike partner, linger on the shoulder of defenders and peel into that space in behind a back line.

In an ideal world, he wants to be alongside someone else.

But does that suddenly mean that Poyet goes back to the drawing board and digs out the blueprint for good old 4-4-2?

Given how much he has worked on his shape throughout the summer and during the season, it would be a surprise.

It may simply be a case of tweaking things, with Defoe in the central striker role.

That’s far from a bad thing. It’s all been too predictable on too many occasions this season.

Tucking the widemen inside to provide more support to that lone frontman and playing the odd ball over the top to get defenders twisting and turning, are steps Sunderland needed to take regardless of Defoe’s signing.

And while the search for a Fabio Borini alternative in that left-sided forward role seems to have been a headache since last May, Wickham hasn’t made a bad fist of it there.

Despite all the calls for Wickham to be used down the middle, he has been far more effective this season when tucked inside from the left.

At both Manchester City and last weekend against Liverpool, Wickham offered no attacking platform whatsoever in the central berth.

By contrast, he has worried defenders on the left, notably one of the Premier League’s finest right-backs, Branislav Ivanovic, in last month’s stalemate against Chelsea.

Providing Wickham can tuck inside and complement Defoe’s poaching prowess with a touch of muscle, then there is not necessarily an issue, particularly with the in-form Adam Johnson adding a touch of guile from the opposite flank.

Johnson has tended to float more into the hole behind the striker over recent games anyway, so will happily stick closer to the frontman.

Where does that leave Steven Fletcher?

It’s a good question.

Some of Fletcher’s performances have been excellent since ending his goal drought in October, and he is clearly a player who Poyet genuinely likes.

Yet there are reservations over whether the Scot fits into Poyet’s system. Fletcher thrives on crosses, such as the one which he guided effortlessly with his head into the bottom corner at Crystal Palace.

But Sunderland rarely deliver crosses, while Fletcher doesn’t possess the pace to get in behind which the Black Cats so dearly need.

Fletcher may simply be an alternative option, amidst speculation of interest in the frontman this month.

Supporters can get bogged down in discussing formations and systems though. The bigger consideration is always quality. When Fletcher, Wickham and Altidore have all struggled to find the back of the net, Defoe is a proven goalscorer.

That’s the bottom line, albeit he has endured an injury-hit spell in Canada.

Regardless of the tactics Poyet uses to accommodate Defoe in the starting line-up, give Defoe chances and he will score.

Providing Sunderland can indeed give the former Spurs man the required service, then it doesn’t matter what formation Poyet plays.

Giving him that required silver service is of greater concern than whether it’s 4-4-2, 4-1-4-1, 4-2-3-1 or 0-0-10.