Chris Young: Sunderland £13m signing Jeremain Lens needs graft to go with guile

Jeremain Lens
Jeremain Lens
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Decked in a pair of ice-white headphones, a serene-looking Jeremain Lens showed no discernible difference from the average Premier League footballer when he emerged from the Goodison Park dressing rooms.

Inside though? Inside, how will Lens have mentally reacted to watching Sunderland’s masterclass in defensive suicide from the discomfort of the substitute’s bench?

Are there question marks over whether Lens has the discipline to fit into Allardyce’s system?

Lens could hardly claim that his attacking contribution was missed after Sunderland mustered 17 efforts on goal. Neither was he going to help inject any greater defensive resilience into the Black Cats’ ranks.

But surely it will have come as an almighty blow for Lens to have been dropped, particularly after Sunderland’s first winning performance of the campaign.

After all, he was the big hitter in Sunderland’s spending spree; the fleet-of-foot Dutch international, who could eventually set the club back a whopping £13million, depending on add-ons.

It’s understandable why Sam Allardyce left Lens out on Merseyside.

In the re-jig of Sunderland’s set-up to 3-5-2, there was no room for an orthodox winger.

Neither can Lens claim to have been one of Sunderland’s top performers against Newcastle, with the ex-Dynamo Kiev man, plus fellow derby debutant Ola Toivonen, both struggling to cope with the frenetic, nervy, pressure-fuelled atmosphere for that unique tussle with the neighbours.

Perhaps most notably of all, his struggles to adapt to tracking back and lending a defensive hand to his full-back were yet again apparent against the Magpies.

It was a problem which Dick Advocaat continually bemoaned during the opening two months of the campaign and is clearly a facet of his game that Lens will have to address. In the position Sunderland are in, they can’t afford any defensive passengers.

With Allardyce’s emphasis on Pro-zone statistics and video analysis, he will immediately note anyone failing to pull their weight.

But in fairness to Lens, having such strict defensive duties is a slightly alien concept.

In the sluggish build-up play prevalent in the Dutch and Ukraine domestic competitions, the attacking players largely only offer a token gesture towards that cliché about ‘attacking from the front’.

By his own admission, Lens is still acclimatising to that culture.

“The level of the game, the high speed of the game here is a big difference,” he said last week. “It’s something I need to adapt to and find my right condition.”

But after being left out following the derby, are there question marks over whether Lens has the discipline to fit into Allardyce’s system, particularly when the new Sunderland manager is necessarily having to put such an emphasis on tightening up?

There are plenty of lazy stereotypes of Allardyce as a pragmatic, uninspiring manager who purely recruits physical specimens blessed with power, rather than guile.

It’s a myth. Just look at how Jay-Jay Okocha and Youri Djorkaeff graced the Premier League with such eye-catching moments of mouth-watering flair during Allardyce’s stint at Bolton.

The key for Allardyce has been integrating such match-winners into an effective system, and seeing them emulate the grafters boasting considerably less talent.

Lens falls into that category of players who can single-handedly convert a solitary point into three, even if Sunderland supporters have to wait until the second half of the season to see it on a consistent basis.

The second half of August’s 1-1 draw against Swansea and that utterly majestic chip over West Ham keeper Adrian in Advocaat’s final game in charge provided snap-shots of what he is capable of contributing.

But these next few weeks, particularly after this final tiresome international break has concluded, are going to be crucial in judging where Lens lies in Allardyce’s plans.

As he alluded to earlier this week, Allardyce is still making up his mind on the squad he inherited, yet it won’t be long before those first impressions have been set in stone.

Equally, there is going to be an element of experimentation over systems, even if we see no more of the 3-5-2 which debuted at Goodison.

When Younes Kaboul and John O’Shea return to full fitness, Allardyce will surely return to a flat back four, but with Fabio Borini, Adam Johnson and Jermain Defoe all available to the Sunderland boss, Lens isn’t an automatic pick in those wide midfield roles.

In this pivotal period where Allardyce will decide upon his strongest side and strongest formation, then Lens has to prove that he has the sweat to complement the guile.