How does Sunderland boss Sam Allardyce get the best out of Steven Fletcher and Jermain Defoe?

Defoe and Fletcher
Defoe and Fletcher
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Sam Allardyce faces a testing international break as he ponders how to get the best out of his under-performing Sunderland side.

At the forefront of his mind will be what system to adopt and what to do with Steven Fletcher and Jermain Defoe?

Steven Fletcher and Jermain Defoe

Steven Fletcher and Jermain Defoe

Defoe is the club’s leading goalscorer in all competitions this season with six goals but has struggled for a regular starting spot up front, instead having to make do with being pushed out wide.

Scottish international Fletcher, meanwhile, has been tasked with leading the line under Allardyce, starting all four matches since the ex-West Ham United and Newcastle boss took charge.

The pair started up front together for the trip to Everton but despite both scoring, the partnership was quickly broken up for the visit of Southampton, which ended in a 1-0 defeat.

Can they play together? And should Allardyce find a way of accommodating them both up front?

Sunderland reporters Chris Young and Richard Mennear have their say on the Defoe/Fletcher riddle.

Chris Young: Steven Fletcher had a thankless task as lone striker, a re-think is needed.

Sunderland have regularly proved their inability to defend this season after a feeble tally of just one clean sheet.

But despite those deficiencies at the back, Sunderland have generally looked pretty decent going forwards - only Norwich and Chelsea finding the net more frequently in the bottom half.

Against Southampton though, Sunderland’s attacking threat was virtually non-existent, other than a couple of quick-fire efforts after the visitors had broken the deadlock.

Steven Fletcher had a thankless task as a lone striker; isolated and starved of any remotely decent service as ex-Sunderland target Virgil van Dijk mopped up the aimless high balls.

Fletcher and Jermain Defoe had shown great promise in tandem at Everton after Sam Allardyce relented and handed a first start to the England international.

Yet after shipping six goals, Allardyce felt he couldn’t deploy two orthodox frontmen and be sufficiently stable at the other end.

That’s understandable. So few Premier League teams do play with a front pair now anyway.

But Defoe and Fletcher are Sunderland’s two natural finishers and if the Black Cats are going to have any chance of beating the drop, then they are going to need players capable of keeping their composure in front of goal.

Allardyce doesn’t necessarily need to use a 3-5-2 to keep the pair together; a midfield diamond or even a ‘old-fashioned’ 4-4-2 would suffice.

Yet as Allardyce spends this international fortnight mentally experimenting over his next move regarding personnel and systems, surely reuniting Fletcher and Defoe has to be at the forefront of his thoughts.

Richard Mennear: Sunderland won’t survive if they play for bore draws, Defoe MUST play alongside Fletcher.

Sunderland’s game plan against Southampton was clear for all to see. To concede possession, sit back and soak up the pressure and aim to grab a goal on the counter-attack.

The main aim was to keep a clean sheet, which meant the side’s attacking intent was curbed. As a result, Jermain Defoe was back on the bench and Steven Fletcher left leading the line in isolation.

You can understand Allardyce’s caution, given the 6-2 hammering they received at Everton the week prior.

But Sunderland don’t have the players capable of grinding out clean sheets and gritty points.

For me, for this Sunderland side, the best form of defence is attack. And that is not to suggest that Allardyce should adopt a gung-ho approach. Far from it.

The second-half kamikaze-style of play at Goodison Park showed the pitfalls of that way of playing.

But I would like to see Allardyce start with a front two. Fletcher and Defoe side by side week in, week out.

They showed against Everton they can play together - and score together.

Very few sides in the Premier League play with two up front anymore, instead adopting the 4-2-3-1 approach.

Sunderland have tried that on a number of occasions - including against the Saints - and it hasn’t worked, with the approach on Saturday leaving Fletcher woefully exposed.

He didn’t receive any service and with nobody running on in support, aside from Duncan Watmore and Adam Johnson in flashes, it made for an easy afternoon for the Southampton defence.

Too easy.

And if Sunderland are to drag themselves out of trouble, and it is a mammoth task - as Allardyce conceded himself - then two up top is the way forward with a midfield diamond, for home games at least.

A flat back four of DeAndre Yedlin, John O’Shea, Younes Kaboul and Billy Jones, with Yann M’Vila in front of the defence and Adam Johnson in the hole behind Defoe and Fletcher.

The two other midfield positions are up for grabs, with Fabio Borini, Seb Larsson, Duncan Watmore, Ola Toivonen (who needs a big improvement) and Jeremain Lens among those battling it out.

In possession it would be an attacking but balanced line-up, with Johnson tucking into midfield when the opposition have the ball.

Fletcher puts a shift in up front alone but he needs support and Sunderland would benefit from the clever runs and clinical finishing of Defoe.