Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Sunderland must stick with two up front

Steven Fletcher.
Steven Fletcher.
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NOTORIOUSLY, over the opening five Premier League games of the season, Sunderland were the shot-shy leaders of Europe after mustering a meagre 12 efforts on target.

Yet they remained undefeated.

Over the last three outings, they have hit the mark a total of 19 times, but lost every time.

Only two of those 19 efforts – which doesn’t include the glaring miss by James McClean at the death on Saturday – have been converted into goals, and one of those was from the penalty spot.

The personnel aren’t the issue; Martin O’Neill naming his most attack-minded line-up of the season at The Hawthorns.

Composure has been the missing element and, as the Black Cats enter a pivotal month in their campaign, it is an ingredient they must immediately rediscover, rather than wilting when the pressure crescendos.

Sunderland have to retain belief in the adage that if the chances are being created, then the goals will come because O’Neill cannot do much differently with his starting XI, at least while Danny Rose and Lee Cattermole remain sidelined.

Three centre-halves among the substitutes on Saturday testified to the lack of depth in Sunderland’s squad, with McClean the only available replacement who could be classed as an attacking alternative.

But the 4-4-2 to which O’Neill relented provided a marked improvement to Sunderland’s attacking threat and will surely be retained.

Yes, it’s not foolproof.

Sunderland couldn’t match the attacking flexibility of the hosts, as Chris Brunt, James Morrison and Shane Long interchanged as the supporting cast behind the elusive Romelu Lukaku.

And the absence of an extra central midfielder provided Lukaku with more space to extend his powerful legs and burst beyond the futile attempts of Sunderland’s defenders to halt his tracks, whether legally or not.

But the Black Cats were far more consistently threatening than against Reading and Arsenal, where Steven Fletcher cast an impotent lone furrow for the first hour, with a 20-yard radius between him any other red and white shirt.

Introducing Graham was a bold step against a side boasting the third best home record in the league, but one which needed to be made.

Neither did O’Neill reduce Fletcher’s threat by handing Graham his full debut.

Sunderland played a genuine, orthodox 4-4-2, where the two frontmen alternated in dropping deep to link the play, but essentially remained on the toes of the Baggies’ centre-halves.

Encouragingly, there were signs that the pair can work in tandem, too.

Graham displayed good awareness to lay the ball off to Fletcher midway through the first half as Sunderland produced three efforts on goal in a matter of seconds, where both of the front pair should have found the mark.

And there was more neat interplay midway inside the West Brom half before the ball went out wide to McClean in the build-up to Stephane Sessegnon’s first goal since December.

Perhaps of more encouragement than a Fletcher-Graham double act, though, has been a return to form for Sessegnon.

In the second half against the Gunners, Sessegnon was a constant threat down the flank and he was again Sunderland’s greatest outlet in the Black Country.

Moving out wide seems to have lifted a weight from the Benin international’s shoulders and he revelled in carrying the ball forward deep into enemy territory or drifting inside off the right.

There was a vintage moment when he slalomed beyond three West Brom defenders before scuffing a shot, which rolled through Graham’s legs, that required smart reactions from Ben Foster.

But, crucially, Sessegnon didn’t let his promise peter out to nothing.

And with Alfred N’Diaye bombing forward effectively throughout and both makeshift full-backs offering support, there was a rare sight of a cluster of Sunderland shirts around the opposition penalty area.

The visitors didn’t make it count at the crucial moments in the game, though.

In the first 25 minutes, Sunderland controlled proceedings and kept possession well. But there was no reward, and when the quickfire efforts of Graham and Fletcher banished the Baggies from their lethargy, the hosts began to dominate.

Similarly, at the start of the second half, Sunderland pinned the Baggies back, but couldn’t muster an equaliser and the threat of Lukaku on the break eventually took its toll.

The blundering back-pass from Titus Bramble showed that it is not just attacking composure which Sunderland are lacking either.

Lukaku is a fearsome performer, who has troubled better sides than Sunderland this season, and will surely become the heir apparent to Didier Drogba at Chelsea next season.

And with Sunderland chasing the game during the second half, it was inevitable that Lukaku would revel in an encounter which became increasingly open.

But while Bramble, along with John O’Shea, was generally effective, he made three critical mistakes, all of which could have resulted in goals.

Moments before the baffling decision to make an off-balance pass back to Simon Mignolet, rather than hoofing into touch, he played a hospital ball to Seb Larsson which James Morrison intercepted and fed Lukaku, to the left of goal.

And then, after Sessegnon had halved the deficit, Bramble headed straight to Brunt on the edge of the area, before the Northern Ireland international unleashed a half-volley which Mignolet parried superbly.

But three successive games have now passed where Sunderland have been the architects of their own downfall.

The inconsistency of the bottom four have ensured the Black Cats can still maintain a healthy five-point buffer with the relegation zone.

But that won’t last forever.

The next three games against Fulham, QPR and Norwich will prove pivotal in Sunderland’s season and anything less than a six-point haul will keep the Wearsiders lingering in that nervy area immediately above the basement scrap.

Twitter @youngsunecho