Building Sunderland’s Championship strike force: What do they need and how much will it cost?

Daryl Murphy.
Daryl Murphy.
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Strikers, as ever, will come at a premium this summer.

In every division, a reliable marksman is seen as the difference between a middling or poor campaign and a stellar one.

Britt Assombalonga's price tag shows the challenge for Sunderland this summer

Britt Assombalonga's price tag shows the challenge for Sunderland this summer

They are hard to find, and even harder to extract from their current employers.

As clubs in the second tier make their preparations for next season, a striker will be top of almost every wish list.

Leeds United will be satisfied with Chris Wood, Aston Villa will presumably settle with their eye-wateringly expensive current front line. Sheffield Wednesday are probably in the same boat.

For the other 21 sides, however, a gamechanging scorer will be the key priority. Few will end up satisfied.

Needless to say then, for Sunderland to be on the hunt for two, perhaps three dependable performers is less than ideal. The squad looks reasonably equipped in some areas for the season ahead, but that Lynden Gooch and Josh Maja have led the line in pre-season will understandably have alarm bells ringing.

The pair have performed admirably but strengthening in this department will unquestionably be Simon Grayson’s biggest challenge.

So what will he need, and how much will it cost him?

How much will it cost?

Sunderland have accepted that the bulk of their ‘realistic’ budget will need to be spent on their strikeforce.

Even the briefest glance at some of the deals done in this division in recent times confirms that. Aston Villa spent over £10 million to sign Jonathan Kodjia from Bristol City last summer, the Ivory Coast striker then having only had one season in England. In January, a similar fee bought them Scott Hogan, who had scored only a handful of Championship goals at that point.

Such eye-watering deals have been commonplace, Jordan Rhodes twice commanding fees nearing the eight figure mark in as many seasons.

Note, too, that Britt Assombalonga, an excellent young striker but one with a history of injury problems, will likely command around £12 million should he leave Nottingham Forest this summer.

So to land a proven, dependable, Championship marksman, Sunderland will almost certainly have to spend the majority of their budget on one player.

It would then be a case of padding out the strikeforce with free agents and loan players, and putting the bulk of the scoring burden on the marquee signing. It largely worked for Leeds last year, who depended on Chris Wood for the majority of their goals, but the Black Cats will remember how badly their over reliance on Jermain Defoe cost them at the end of last season.

The alternatives are to gamble on an unproven name, or a host of them, from abroad or the lower leagues. Given Simon Grayson’s preference for players from the British Isles, it is likely to be the latter.

His battery of attackers at Preston last season is instructive. Five Brits, one Dane, who himself had already played in the Championship. Three on frees, one on loan, two for nominal fees. Three signed from lower league clubs, two from the fringes of the Championship’s big hitters.

On Wearside he has a bigger budget but the plan might not look greatly different.

There are some reasons for optimism when looking at last year’s play-off teams. Newcastle United scored more goals than anyone else, and it is true that their attack cost the best part of £40 million.

Brighton, however, relied on four strikers who cumulatively cost less then £10 million. Reading got by with a crop of loanees and 19 goals from the veteran target man Yann Kermorgant, who cost £500,000. Huddersfield, similarly, spent precious little on their attack, with £2 million man Nakhi Wells their most expensive recruit, but used the loan system to prosper.

Of the top six only Sheffield Wednesday spent on Newcastle’s level, but with only one (Steven Fletcher) getting into double figures, it was hardly a resounding success.

The dearth of goals in Sunderland’s current squad means a proven striker is a must, and it will cost them. There is plenty of reason to hope, however, that Grayson can elsewhere make a little go a good distance.

What will Grayson need?

How many strikers Grayson needs to call upon will clearly depend on the system he wishes to operate with.

Last season Reading, Huddersfield and Fulham rarely had more than three on their books, but for the vast majority of games only operated with one up front.

Newcastle had four, though Ayoze Perez generally played off the main centre-forward. Brighton were the same, but Chris Hughton invariably played two up top.

Grayson has played a 4-3-3 in pre-season, as well as a 4-2-3-1, but his managerial career so far strongly sugggests he will want to have the option of playing both a 4-4-2 and a 3-5-2. Clearly, then, he will need four strikers to allow for rotation and good cover for when injuries invariably occur.

Though Josh Maja and Joel Asoro are unproven at first team level, Grayson is keen to give them an opportunity and Sunderland’s desire to improve their financial situation will almost certainly mean their development is accelerated. They bring raw pace that could be extremely useful in the latter stages of games.

The Black Cats will then realistically be looking for two or three players to stock their ranks.

One will almost certainly be a target man, particularly if Grayson, as expected, looks to improve Sunderland’s wing play. Daryl Murphy is an obvious, low cost candidate, but here is where the Black Cats can perhaps make a relatively cheap addition.

A loan addition may then leave some much needed funds to attract a proven penalty box predator.

The importance of goals from midfield

One area where Sunderland simply must improve is the number of goals scored from other areas of the pitch.

Their record last season in this regard was simply wretched. Defoe aside, no player scored five goals for the Black Cats. Defenders offered little threat from set-pieces. midfielders little threat from open play.

Simon Grayson will hoping that this season, when Sunderland will see more of the ball and will have no reason to sit deep in their own half, that players can begin to get forward more and chip in.

It would make a major difference.

Every side who made the play-offs last year called upon a goalscorer from midfield or out wide. Matt Ritchie netted 16 for Newcastle, Anthony Knockaert 13 for Brighton. Fernando Forestieri scored 12 for the Owls while for Fulham, central midfielders Stefan Johansen and Tom Cairney top scored with a remarkable 11 and 13 goals respectively.

What the Craven Cottage side managed last year was nothing short of remarkable, losing 40 goals when selling Ross McCormack and Moussa Dembele. Their replacements cost next to nothing, Sone Aluko on a free, Chris Martin from Derby with a loan fee.

Their success was a reminder that balancing the side to get goals from all departments is a must.

In targeting Aiden McGeady and Max Gradel to arrive in the wide areas, Grayson has already shown that will be part of his plan.