Chris Young column: Who will partner Defoe in attack for Sunderland?

Jermain Defoe.

Jermain Defoe.

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THERE were no rubber rings, no armbands and none of those moth-eaten foam mats which the dog has given up chewing.

Gus Poyet thrust his side head-first into the deep end at White Hart Lane by accommodating Jermain Defoe in a radically fresh system, rather than opting for the soft sell of a diamond midfield or tweaked front-line.

The principal has now been set. Defoe has to play in a front two, barring exceptional circumstances.

The big question now is who partners him in attack.

Poyet’s three contenders were all on show at Spurs. None made a convincing case to be the regular foil for Sunderland’s high-profile new signing.

Now it will perhaps take a while for Sunderland’s frontmen to get used to playing in an orthodox strike partnership again after Poyet’s 15-month reign has predominantly been marked by a lone targetman.

In Danny Graham’s case, he needs to get used to playing in a red and white shirt again full-stop after a shock resurrection from the ranks of Sunderland’s dead men.

But there is a key position very much up for grabs.

Despite his awful first half miss last weekend, Steven Fletcher remains in pole position to partner Defoe and there were encouraging signs in the first half at Spurs.

While Fletcher’s execution was poor, his movement wasn’t.

The Scot is an intelligent player, but lacks the pace to get in behind a defence.

Defoe does that and frees up Fletcher to drop deep, hold the ball up and get on the end of crosses. There is clearly the potential for them to complement each other.

If Fletcher can regularly reproduce his performance from the Tyne-Wear derby too, Sunderland’s attack will suddenly look far more potent, with a fresh face up there to take the glut of chances which were spurned against Newcastle.

Where does that leave Connor Wickham though?

Sporting director Lee Congerton spent many patience-sapping hours over the Autumn orchestrating a new contract for Wickham – rightly regarded as one of the club’s brightest assets after beginning to make good on his potential.

The £8million frontman is not suddenly going to revert to the bit-part role that he was confined to for the first two-and-a-half years of his Sunderland career.

But Wickham’s best performances this season have come as a makeshift left-sided forward, rather than in his favoured central role.

When he played down the middle against Manchester City and Liverpool – or for the last half-hour on Saturday – he made no impression whatsoever.

As ever though, Wickham’s age is almost always overlooked. At 21, he’s still going to suffer from inconsistency.

And after playing regular Premier League football over a sustained period for the first time in his career, perhaps he simply needs a breather.

Graham is fresh, but is he up to the job? There’s been one emphatic answer to that question since his arrival for a big five million quid two years ago.

The 29-year-old hasn’t indicated he is the solution for Sunderland during his loan spells away from the Stadium of Light either after the Black Cats have been unable to shift him permanently.

One goal in 20 appearances for Hull, a more reasonable six in 18 for Middlesbrough and one in five for Wolves before Christmas.

The latter are understood to have been distinctly unimpressed by Graham, hence the decision not to extend his loan spell at the turn of the year.

But while Graham spurned two glorious chances against Spurs – albeit the latter was kept out by a smart save from Hugo Lloris – he has made life awkward for defenders in his two successive substitute appearances.

If Poyet is going to persist with two up front too, he will need four available strikers.

There are other question marks for the short-term future of 3-5-2.

Is there enough pace in the back three? Where does Lee Cattermole feature when fit? What happens if Patrick van Aanholt gets injured?

But when goals have so evidently been a problem for Sunderland this season, Poyet needs two players up front capable of getting on the scoresheet.

This weekend’s FA Cup clash provides an opportunity to further develop an understanding up front – crucial ahead of one of THE defining games of the season against Burnley seven days later.

Ultimately though, Defoe’s partner will be decided by that simplest of barometers – goals.