Assessing Sunderland's big Will Grigg dilemma ahead of Portsmouth clash and why January signing can still be key
Towards the end of the first half at Southend, Sunderland had a promising counter.
They broke towards the halfway line and had the home defence scrambling.
A heavy touch from Will Grigg brought the move to a halt. Grigg was visibly frustrated, lifting his head towards the heavens shortly after.
It was a moment that reflected a player short on confidence.
Not long into the second half he was replaced, Jack Ross abandoning a malfunctioning 4-4-2 and getting a response of sorts from his substitutes.
Afterwards, Ross was clear that it had been a tactical switch.
It had been the same days before at Fleetwood, when Grigg had been the first Sunderland player to be switched. Ross had again been asked if Grigg’s ankle injury was the explanation, an issue that was having to be carefully managed. Partly, Ross had said, but there was also a surprisingly direct challenge to lift his levels.
At Southend, it just didn’t come off
It leaves Ross with a big dilemma at the start of the play-off campaign.
It seems highly unlikely that he will start with two strikers again, but over the last month there is little doubt that Charlie Wyke has made a bigger contribution.
After that deflating defeat Stewart Donald took to twitter to deny suggestions Ross had not been keen on signing Grigg.
It’s certainly true that it was Donald who drove the deal over the line in the final hour, paying a substantial fee to give his manager extra firepower.
After that deadline day Ross had suggested that Sunderland could learn from the saga and improve their transfer process, which had in previous days given the impression of a scattergun approach to replacing Josh Maja.
What was never in doubt was that the Black Cats boss was very keen to bring Grigg in.
It had been the case in the summer, but a deal was ultimately never on the cards.
Grigg was a striker with an exceptional League One record and he started well.
Despite some high-profile and costly misses in the opening games of his Black Cats career, Ross said that he felt the team was nevertheless better for Grigg’s presence.
His runs off the shoulder of the defence gave Sunderland an out ball they had not had with Josh Maja leading the line.
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His all-round play was impressive, his movement opening up good opportunities for himself and his team-mates.
After some poor performances in which they were creating little, Ross’ side looked threatening.
The logic was that Grigg’s finishing abilities meant that sooner or later he would come good, and Sunderland would start to motor.
Which he did, scoring a wonderful, instinctive finish in the Checkatrade Trophy semi final against Bristol Rovers before an even better effort to seal three points against Walsall.
The turning point was a recurrence of an ankle problem just days later as Grigg left for international duty.
There have been two goals since then but performances have dipped.
The Northern Irishman has been a peripheral figure, struggling to make a significant impression.
For that reason, it feels as if Wyke will get the nod when Portsmouth return to the Stadium of Light on Saturday night.
If Sunderland are to go up, however, they will need the 27-year-old to make his mark.
In that 1-1 draw with Pompey Grigg had come off the bench and two moments of real quality almost made the difference.
The first a trademark shuffle into a dangerous area, a first time volley somehow turned onto the post by Craig MacGillivray.
Then another exquisite first touch, taking the opposition defence out of the game in a flash and setting Chris Maguire free on goal.
Produce something like that over these three games and the Black Cats will surely finally take advantage.
Regardless of what happens over the next month, Grigg has a big part to play in Sunderland’s future.
A full pre-season will without doubt make a major difference.
The question is whether he can help get his side over the line now, and earn himself a real shot at the Championship.