Analysis - Sunderland need the attacking threat to worry vulnerable Liverpool

Steven Fletcher in action against Manchester City. Picture by FRANK REID
Steven Fletcher in action against Manchester City. Picture by FRANK REID
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LOVE OR HATE Steve Bruce, the former Sunderland manager had one basic managerial belief which was eminently sensible.

“You’re only as good as your strikers,” sounds like a cliché, but it has served Bruce well.

Whatever his subsequent public pronouncements about Geordies, expectations, blah, blah, blah, one of the key factors in Bruce’s downfall at the Stadium of Light was that he lost heart after seeing his forward options of Darren Bent, Asamoah Gyan, Danny Welbeck and Fraizer Campbell evaporate.

Bruce knew he would never enjoy such a wealth of attacking threats again.

It’s why Bruce spent big to take Shane Long and Nikica Jelavic to Hull last January.

Sunderland’s opponents tomorrow couldn’t offer a better example of how a couple of top class frontmen can propel a side to a different stratosphere.

Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge transformed Liverpool from Europa League contenders to title challengers last season. In both meetings against Sunderland, they proved to be the difference.

At the Stadium of Light, they took advantage of Sunderland’s suspect defending and while Liverpool survived a late fightback in the return fixture, the damage reaped by Suarez and Sturridge in the first hour ultimately proved to be sufficient.

Forget all the barrage surrounding Suarez’s replacement Mario Balotelli, the Italian doesn’t remotely come close to his fellow controversial frontman in the ability stakes.

Losing Sturridge to injury has just compounded the loss of Suarez.

Liverpool may have scrapped to a couple of victories in their last two outings, but they are not romping to the winning line as they did regularly with their devastating front two last season.

Even against 10-man Leicester on Tuesday night, Liverpool were unconvincing – vulnerable at the back and producing far too many sloppy giveaways.

With former Sunderland keeper Simon Mignolet continuing to be plagued by the jitters, Gus Poyet’s side should sniff half an opportunity of ending their 30 years-plus Anfield hoodoo this weekend.

But there are two big problems for Sunderland tomorrow.

The main one is the fatigue factor.

Sunderland were clearly shattered from their exertions against Chelsea when they succumbed to Manchester City in midweek, albeit the Black Cats didn’t boast that impeccable defensive shape from their draw against Jose Mourinho’s side.

Poyet’s men are unlikely to be any fresher for the third game inside eight days.

But the other concern for Sunderland continues to be their own attacking threat, with the Black Cats averaging less than a goal per game.

That has not necessarily been down to the finishing of Steven Fletcher or Connor Wickham. The general lack of service into the penalty area has been more troubling.

Yet if Sunderland are to re-ignite the question marks over Liverpool and increase the narrow two-point gap with the relegation zone, then Poyet’s side are going to need to find more attacking potency tomorrow and beyond.

Fletcher has to be a doubt after coming off against City with a back problem.

But regardless of the Scot’s fitness, perhaps there is a case to deploy Wickham down the middle and look to bully a fragile Liverpool defence.

With Adam Johnson likely to be fit and Ricky Alvarez getting some minutes under his belt as a substitute on Wednesday, there are options out wide.

Poyet will have to consider the merits of introducing the fresh legs of Jordi Gomez and/or Liam Bridcutt in midfield, while Wes Brown will provide a welcome return in place of the ineligible Sebastian Coates.

Defensively, Sunderland need to frustrate Liverpool and create some jitters in the crowd.

But it’s those key striking positions where Sunderland need to show improvement both tomorrow and beyond.

Verdict: Home win