Analysis: Striking improvement as Graham offers ideal support to Sunderland talisman Defoe

Costel Pantilimon can't keep out Ki Sung-Yueng's header as Swansea level against Sunderland
Costel Pantilimon can't keep out Ki Sung-Yueng's header as Swansea level against Sunderland
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A £1MILLION price tag was placed on Danny Graham’s head during the summer.

Sunderland were ready to take a £4m hit on the striker just so they could remove his big-money wages from the books.

But had Sunderland received any kind of offer to remove Graham permanently, then there has to be a suspicion that the club would have jumped at the prospect.

After neither Hull City nor Middlesbrough showed an inclination to convert Graham’s loan spells into a long-term switch last season, the 29-year-old was – to be brutally honest – a drain on the club’s resources, with little or no prospect of him contributing on the field.

Graham simply looked to be yet another of those costly transfer clangers which have been too frequent at Sunderland over recent years.

Gus Poyet had Steven Fletcher, Connor Wickham and Jozy Altidore to call upon, and, at that stage, showed no inclination to field two strikers.

Graham’s absence from Sunderland’s pre-season trip to Portugal said everything.

While his Black Cats team-mates were in the Algarve, Graham was lining up for the Under-21s in a friendly at Gateshead’s International Stadium.

The writing was on the wall.

When he went to Wolves on loan this season, it looked to be a mere formality that he would remain at Molineux for the rest of the campaign.

In the end, the Molineux club were not impressed by Graham, but he surely wouldn’t struggle to find another Championship suitor in the New Year.

But credit Sunderland boss Gus Poyet for having an open mind on Graham and not shutting the door on the former Swansea man.

Even bigger credit goes to Graham himself, for catching the head coach’s eye on the training field and shedding a bit of timber during his time at Wolves.

After the bright impact he made during four substitute appearances, Graham deserved a first Sunderland start since May 2013 at his former stomping ground, the Liberty Stadium.

Graham did well on Saturday after being preferred to Fletcher alongside Jermain Defoe in the starting line-up.

He was strong, held the ball up effectively and gave Sunderland an attacking platform. It took an excellent late tackle from Ashley Williams to prevent him knocking home Jordi Gomez’s cross from six yards out, too, for what would have been a first Black Cats goal.

During the fortnight or so that Wickham faces on the sidelines, there is clearly an opportunity for Graham to team up with Defoe, with Fletcher not exactly setting the world alight at present.

Graham didn’t do his chances any harm of remaining alongside Defoe against QPR tomorrow night.

Having Graham doing the water-carrying up front allows Defoe to focus on what he does best too.

The England striker did it magnificently at the Liberty Stadium.

Swansea backed off Defoe too readily, but it was still a superb piece of finishing to take the ball from halfway, drive to the penalty area and then stroke the ball sweetly into the bottom corner.

What a difference having a frontman like that in Sunderland’s ranks has already made.

It may well prove to be the difference between the Wearsiders staying up with a bit to spare, and an end-of-season nail-biter.

Sunderland had one shot on target in the entire game, and only two real efforts in total, but Defoe converted it.

The Black Cats haven’t had anyone like that since Darren Bent departed, and it inevitably spreads confidence around the team, with players well-aware that they are suddenly capable of nicking games.

It turned what had been a solid, but not spectacular, performance from Sunderland into a point.

A month ago, they wouldn’t have come away with anything.

There was a sense of disappointment that Defoe’s strike didn’t earn maximum points, although it was difficult to argue with Swansea getting a share of the spoils.

The Swans created chances, drew two excellent saves out of Costel Pantilimon, had a goal just – and only just – ruled out for offside and enjoyed the lion’s share of possession in the second half.

It was unusually poor defending from Anthony Reveillere to lose Ki Sung-Yueng for the equaliser, as the South Korean predictably grabbed the goal against his former employers, just as Swansea looked to be slightly running out of ideas.

But Swansea deserved something for their efforts.

Certainly, if they had still boasted Wilfried Bony in their ranks, they would have won it.

Sunderland didn’t help themselves by their failure to produce any real attacking threat in the second half.

In the opening 45 minutes, Sunderland had played some nice one and two-touch football, while Ricky Alvarez looked confident and in the mood after his first goal in red and white at Fulham.

Yet Alvarez was given scant opportunity to take on left-back Neil Taylor one-on-one after the break, as Sunderland’s passing game dipped markedly.

The visitors were never able to relieve the pressure, and Jonjo Shelvey and the excellent Ki were able to control proceedings.

Sunderland’s lopsided shape, with Alvarez and then Johnson on the right, leaving Jordi Gomez to cover on the left, opened them up for Swansea too.

The impressive Nathan Dyer was persistently left with just Patrick van Aanholt in front of him and a succession of crosses duly arrived from the right – the route which eventually provided the leveller.

But at least Sunderland ensured they didn’t come away empty-handed after Ki’s diving header. Sunderland were solid and resolute during the final 25 minutes – only substitute Nelson Oliveira drawing a save out of Pantilimon in the dying stages.

The Black Cats shouldn’t be too disheartened with a point at the Liberty Stadium either, with only Spurs, Chelsea and Southampton winning in south Wales this season.

Despite Bony’s exit removing some of their firepower, Swansea are still a fine, clever outfit, bursting with pace and precision.

A point was a decent return for the Black Cats, and crucially, maintains the momentum from what turned out to be a very good week for Sunderland after victories over Burnley and Fulham.

Sunderland should go into tomorrow’s visit of travel-sick QPR – managerless and likely to be without key players Charlie Austin, Richard Dunne and Joey Barton – in confident mood.

If Poyet’s side can get a second successive Stadium of Light victory and further increase the gap with the relegation zone, then Sunderland will be in a very healthy situation to avoid falling to the coat-tails of the bottom three again.

Inevitably, there will be anxiety among supporters that it would be typical if QPR ended their run of 11 straight defeats on the road on Wearside.

But Sunderland are in a much better place from the opening three of five games inside a fortnight.

Crucially, they have a striker making a difference too.

SWANSEA: Fabianski, Naughton, Fernandez, Williams, Taylor (Rangel 67), Cork, Ki, Dyer, Shelvey (Oliveira 78), Barrow (Montero 46), Gomis. Subs not used: Tremmel, Amat, Fulton, Carroll. Booked: Cork (15), Dyer (31), Naughton (75)

SUNDERLAND: Pantilimon, Reveillere, O’Shea, Vergini, van Aanholt, Bridcutt, Larsson, Gomez, Alvarez (Johnson 65), Graham (Fletcher 76), Defoe. Subs not used: Mannone, Brown, Coates, Smith, Agnew. Booked: Bridcutt (49), Larsson (71), Gomez (77), Fletcher (88)

Attendance: 20,355. Referee: Phil Dowd