Chris Young: Jan Kirchhoff is Sunderland’s talisman, but his fitness remains a big problem

Jermain Defoe scores for Sunderland
Jermain Defoe scores for Sunderland
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Trawling through reams of footage, Sunderland’s coaching staff cast their gaze over hundreds of players in the search for a January nugget of gold.

The air in Sam Allardyce’s staff room at the Academy of Light was akin to a Hollywood casting call, with constant shouts of “Next!”.

Jan Kirchhoff

Jan Kirchhoff

But suddenly there was a pause as those assembled gathered around a monitor to look at one stand-out player. It was Jan Kirchhoff.

The inevitable follow-up question was whether Kirchhoff was available in the transfer window. There were almost gasps of disbelief when the reply came that the German was free to move and had a price tag of just £750,000.

Allardyce made a personal check on Kirchhoff at Bayern Munich’s training ground before Sunderland pushed ahead with the deal, but the Black Cats thought they had landed a coup with the signing of the 25-year-old.

It didn’t look that way after Kirchhoff’s debut prompted disdain and mockery, yet Allardyce threw him a hospital pass by introducing him from the bench against title-chasing Spurs when Sunderland were jaded and the midfielder was so clearly short on match fitness.

But Kirchhoff has subsequently proved his qualities to the extent that he was Sunderland’s stand-out performer for much of the Tyne-Wear derby, as he conducted proceedings from the middle of the park.

The key part of that sentence is “much of” though.

When fatigue begins to take its toll on Kirchhoff and his influence wanes, then Sunderland’s threat as a whole dips markedly.

It happened against Crystal Palace. It happened at Southampton and it happened again yesterday, as Sunderland once more registered a point from the jaws of victory to fluff the opportunity to move out of the relegation zone and send Newcastle United a step closer to the Championship.

With Kirchhoff on song, Sunderland are a completely different beast.

Helped by a man advantage in the middle of the park after new Newcastle boss Rafa Benitez opted for a gung-ho line-up, Kirchhoff and Yann M’Vila dictated the tempo at St James’s Park for an hour.

It allowed Jack Rodwell virtually a free role which he generally used effectively; picking out his passes and laying on a golden opportunity for the first of three first half chances for Jermain Defoe – one of which he finally converted just before the interval.

Kirchhoff won nearly every second ball, was dominant in the tackle and unusually for a holding midfielder, his passes out from the back are invariably forwards and attack-minded, rather than sideways or backwards.

But when Kirchhoff’s influence waned from the hour mark, a poor Newcastle side began to scrap away and sniffed a route back into the game, even if Vito Mannone largely remained untested.

It’s not a cardio issue for the 6ft 5in ex-German Under-21 international. The lack of game-time is the overwhelming problem after just 14 starts in the two-and-a-half years prior to joining Sunderland.

Should Allardyce have introduced Lee Cattermole for Kirchhoff sooner? Perhaps, but it’s arguably a no-win situation.

Kirchhoff is now so influential that any manager would be wary of removing him and when he was taken off for John O’Shea in the dying stages at Southampton, Allardyce was lambasted for the decision.

It’s not just Kirchhoff’s fitness either which is proving fatal to Sunderland’s hopes of getting over the winning line and registering an elusive clean sheet.

There’s a mental anxiety which creeps in as the ramifications of a victory begin to sink in and players stop doing what had put them in such a good position in the first place.

Repeatedly in the second half prior to Aleksandar Mitrovic’s equaliser, Allardyce urged his team to push up the pitch, yet those warnings went unheeded as they sat deeper and deeper.

If Patrick van Aanholt’s effort which was magnificently kept out by Rob Elliot had given Sunderland a two-goal cushion, then players could have been forgiven for sitting on their advantage.

But at just one in front, Sunderland were asking for trouble and they duly got it.

Benitez’s attack-minded substitutions – when he had to gamble with a defeat so unthinkable for the Magpies – helped Newcastle, particularly the decision to remove disciplinary liability Jack Colback and hand Moussa Sissoko an unfamiliar left-back role.

Allardyce attempted to break the pattern with his own sub by bringing on Dame N’Doye; thinking that the on-loan Trabzonspor man would be able to hold the ball up and allow runners from midfield to join the attack.

Yet it was another of those substitutions which back-fired on Sunderland, as N’Doye produced a half-hearted attempt at preventing Georginho Wijnaldum getting to the by-line and the Dutch international duly lifted the ball up for Mitrovic to head home at the back post.

Mitrovic – forced off moments later with concussion despite his protestations – got above DeAndre Yedlin to direct his header across Mannone, with the on-loan Spurs right-back blighting his performance moments earlier with a schoolboy foul throw in the build-up to the leveller.

But the principal fault lay with N’Doye; even prompting Allardyce to switch the Senegal international with Defoe for the final stages when Newcastle were threatening a winner.

Those momentary seconds of lapsed concentration can have devastating consequences.

If Sunderland had held on in the last two games, they’d be two points clear of Norwich and a mighty six ahead of the Magpies, with a superior goal difference to boot.

But the inability to maintain the advantage is a huge worry, particularly as Sunderland are running out of time to find a solution.