TWO YEARS and 13 days since traversing the English Channel, Stephane Sessegnon remains a conundrum.
On sheer natural talent alone, Sessegnon is unrivalled in the Sunderland squad.
But harnessing that ability into the relative rigidity of a Premier League team is a dilemma; a quandary over whether the Benin international is a winger, forward, attacking midfielder or all of the above.
Sessegnon’s adaptability was one of the reasons why Steve Bruce splashed out £6million on the then Paris St Germain man and it was more by accident than design, that he stumbled upon an effective role for the African, in the hole behind the striker.
Sunderland’s whole philosophy last season was based around deploying Sessegnon in the “number 10” slot and he grasped that mantle to waltz to the Player of the Year title.
There was a sense that even when Sessegnon didn’t directly contribute to a result, he was worth the admission price alone, through uninhibited displays of magical footwork that have arguably not been surpassed during the Stadium of Light era.
But even when Sessegnon was thriving and predators were beginning to sniff the scent of a potential recruit, there was one reservation.
Despite not being a natural finisher, by his own admission, Sessegnon should have managed more than the eight he netted last season.
The meagre tally of three this time around – concentrated in a six-game spell before Christmas – have prompted further question marks over whether Sunderland can afford to continue basing their system around Sessegnon, particularly after the capture of Danny Graham.
The appeal of Sessegnon to Martin O’Neill is obvious.
When Sunderland are on the back foot, he naturally drops deeper than Graham or Steven Fletcher would and can also revert to a wide role should the system be altered to a central midfield trio.
But whether Sessegnon has been on the flanks or in the hole, Fletcher has time and again been left as a lone gunman – none more so than in the first half against Arsenal on Saturday.
Contrast that with Theo Walcott, who seems to have finally found a position that suits.
Stepping infield 10 yards and playing off the shoulder of Olivier Giroud has made the England international far more of a goal threat than when he was hogging the right-hand touchline.
Twice in the first four minutes, Walcott was denied by Simon Mignolet before the post proved his nemesis in the second half after delicately dinking a shot beyond the Belgian keeper.
If O’Neill is to bow to what seems the obvious measure and deploy Fletcher alongside Graham – a system that completely changed Sunderland’s potency in the final 25 minutes, albeit Arsenal were down to 10 men – then Sessegnon will either find himself out wide or on the bench.
On Saturday, Sessegnon’s performance on the flanks was a little like Sunderland’s – inconsistent.
Other than one eye-catching burst and cross beyond Arsenal’s January signing Nacho Monreal which Per Mertesacker just managed to divert away, Sessegnon was more or less a passenger in the first half on the right.
He only sporadically stepped inside to support Fletcher and looked completely isolated.
Had O’Neill opted to make more than just the solitary change at the interval, Sessegnon could easily have been sacrificed.
But early in the second half, Sessegnon and Adam Johnson swapped flanks and both immediately proved more of a threat.
Sessegnon began to find space as he stepped infield and late Arsenal inclusion Carl Jenkinson never looked comfortable against such trickery before the former Charlton full-back’s discipline disappeared completely with a cynical chop which saw him pick up a second yellow card.
From then, with at least two bodies to aim for in the middle, Sunderland’s greatest threat stemmed from Sessegnon, who looked to have rediscovered some belief and hunger.
He was both an outlet and a creator, and as the confidence began to flow through his veins, so did that streak of creativity – a sublime back-heel sending substitute David Vaughan in behind the Gunners’ back-line during the final 10 minutes.
When the time comes for Fletcher and Graham to work in tandem from the start, O’Neill at least now knows that Sessegnon can thrive out wide.
There are two caveats though.
Firstly, the dismissal of Jenkinson completely altered the complexion of the game.
For the opening hour, Arsenal had enjoyed utter domination and continued to create clear-cut opportunities even after Jenkinson trudged red-faced down the tunnel.
And the second is that Sessegnon and Johnson were given the ball in far more advanced positions during the second half after an opening 45 minutes when Sunderland were far too amenable to sitting deep without committing men forward.
Only Alfred N’Diaye among the central midfield trio made any consistent attempts to get forward and support Fletcher.
The result was that Sunderland were pinned back in their own territory, Arsenal relinquished any defensive worries to set camp in the opposition half and piled on the pressure before the inevitable breakthrough.
The wide duo rarely collected possession further forward than halfway and, with no-one to pick out other than Fletcher, it had to be eye of the needle stuff.
Seb Larsson’s introduction at the interval improved matters, particularly as Lee Cattermole was understandably short of match fitness.
But it wasn’t until Graham was unleashed against the 10 men that Sunderland put Arsenal on the back foot for a sustained spell.
Yes, the £5m deadline day arrival must surely be involved in the starting XI at the Hawthorns in 12 days time if Sunderland are to end a sequence of just one goal in three games.
But whether it’s Graham, Sessegnon or a cluster of central midfielders providing the supporting cast for Fletcher, there is a more overriding concern.
For Saturday showed, for the umpteenth time this season, that when Sunderland leave a seismic gap between the forward line and midfield, their attacking threat doesn’t amount to much.