Chris Young: Does Jack Rodwell have to get yet another chance to prove he is the answer?

Without totting up word counts, has any Sunderland player been at the centre of more column inches over the last two years than Jack Rodwell?

Monday, 29th February 2016, 11:00 am
Jack Rodwell. Picture by FRANK REID

The midfielder’s inability to produce any consistent return on that £10million investment, and return to the form which saw him turn so many heads as a teenager at Everton, has prompted a succession of theories over the root cause of his decline.

Injuries, lack of confidence, two wasted years at Manchester City, positional dilemmas and psychological reservations over his own body, have all been offered as factors in Rodwell’s career stuttering to a crossroads.

In truth, it’s probably been a combination of all that have affected a player who off-the-field is one of the most likeable figures in the Sunderland squad.

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It’s reached the stage now where discussion of Rodwell prompts sighs among supporters, a problem not eased by two glaring spurned opportunities at West Ham which could well come back to haunt Sunderland in their hopes of remaining in the Premier League.

When the margin between remaining in the top flight and plummeting into the Championship is so wafer-thin, Sunderland have no leeway for the kind of chances which went begging from both Rodwell and earlier Jermain Defoe.

But, despite the misses, was there enough encouragement from Rodwell in that final 25 minutes to indicate that he can fulfil what he was actually signed for in the first place?

Think back to the summer of 2014 and Gus Poyet’s constant monologues about the need for a box-to-box midfielder. When he finally got Rodwell for that position, the then Sunderland head coach was ecstatic.

As was the case when he first arrived on Wearside, Rodwell unquestionably has the engine for that remit and is capable of getting into the area to offer a helping hand to the lone striker.

None of Lee Cattermole, Yann M’Vila or Jan Kirchhoff can say the same.

Sunderland’s passing in the second half as a whole at Upton Park was vastly improved from the opening 45 minutes, where they had only managed to pick out another of the Asda-ish green away shirts around 50 per cent of the time.

After the break, with the excellent Kirchhoff winning a succession of 50-50 balls high up the pitch and both full-backs pushing further forwards, Sunderland were able to enjoy long spells in the West Ham half.

But it wasn’t until the introduction of Rodwell that there was a better balance to the side; a more natural shape to the midfield trio, with one sitter, one passer and one attacker.

Past experience indicates that it’s premature to be lauding Rodwell as the answer after one game. There have been far too many false dawns for that.

Yet, does the 24-year-old now have to come into contention for a starting spot for what in reality may be a “must-win”’ encounter against Crystal Palace tomorrow night?

It’s perhaps harsh on Lee Cattermole to even be contemplating taking him out of the starting XI.

His form has not been particularly earth-shattering by any stretch over the last month or so, but he still put a chance on a plate for Defoe early in the second half.

Sunderland’s longest-serving first-teamer has been the talisman of this side for so long and he remains the leader of the group, even if John O’Shea has the captain’s armband.

Before the season is out, Sam Allardyce will undoubtedly need the grit, determination and organisation brought by Cattermole if Sunderland are to remain a Premier League force.

But against a Palace side starved of confidence after an awful return of just one point from their last eight games, Sunderland need an attacking frame of mind.

Against both Manchester clubs, Liverpool and top six contenders West Ham, Allardyce’s use of three defensive-minded midfielders was a pragmatic ploy.

Yet when Sunderland were having to be more adventurous in the second half at Upton Park, Cattermole was almost operating in a number 10 role. That’s clearly not his natural position.

It’s not the only change which will be weighing on Allardyce’s mind over the next 24 hours.

The Sunderland manager’s decision to ignore Fabio Borini’s credentials from the bench on Saturday was an eyebrow-raiser, particularly when the Black Cats were desperate for an equaliser in the last 10 minutes.

And it wasn’t as if Dame N’Doye had proved an elusive figure for the West Ham defence. Other than a shot across goal from an acute angle which was parried away by Adrian, the on-loan Trabzonspor man offered precious little.

There’s an evident like-for-like swap that Allardyce can make to offer fresh legs against Palace, particularly if Rodwell offers some extra height for the aerial battle.

Perhaps though, after Sunderland’s line-up was unchanged in the Premier League for the first time since May 2014, it wouldn’t be a staggering shock if Allardyce opts for same again.

There was little wrong with Sunderland’s general performance in their last ever visit to Upton Park – defensively solid in neutering the excellent Dimitri Payet and creating three clear-cut chances.

Allardyce couldn’t legislate for the failure to take any of the three, or the clanger from Patrick van Aanholt which allowed Michail Antonio to score the only goal of the game.

But maybe – just maybe – a few subtle changes might make the difference.

Sunderland supporters have to hope they do tomorrow, because now there is no leeway for failure.