Inside Charlie Wyke's remarkable Sunderland rise and the contract dilemma he could soon create

It's to Charlie Wyke's credit that we can say this is now something of a trademark.

Wednesday, 17th February 2021, 12:00 pm

Around the six-yard box, a one-touch finish either with head or foot. Wyke's celebration is endearing, a simple trot in the other direction. Sometimes we get a clenched fist and a small jump, but often it's a high-five from a team-mate and that is that.

Part of this, of course, is the nature of behind-closed-doors football, where the absence of fans means what is normally a moment of catharsis feels surreal and often underwhelming.

Part of it, though, seems to speak to a player who feels he is just doing his job and doing it well.

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Charlie Wyke is the first Sunderland player to score 20 goals in a season since Darren Bent

Lee Johnson's post-match comments underlined this, when he noted how Wyke was starting to 'treat his football as a business'.

Confidence has been an issue for Wyke since his arrival on Wearside in 2018 (though clearly, not to the same extent as the effects of early injuries) and Johnson has worked a lot already on his mental approach to the game.

Sometimes, Johnson said, a player like Wyke can be 'too passionate, put too much on yourself, not enjoy watching your clips back'.

He feels there is a better balance now and that certainly seems to be reflected in the clinical striker we are watching.

Wyke looks composed, in control, and it is playing with total conviction as a result.

It's equally true that the shift in Sunderland's playing style means that Wyke's strengths as a player are understood better now than at any point in his career on Wearside.

The not unreasonable assumption when Wyke arrived from Bradford City was that the Black Cats had signed the archetypal target man, who could help the side adjust to the rigours of League One.

There was and still is an element of that, and watching Josh Maja get his Premier League career off and running last weekend left you reflecting on a lost partnership.

In two of Maja's last three games for Sunderland, he formed an effective combination with Wyke, the latter helping to bring him into the game both more regularly and in more dangerous areas.

Both would without doubt have benefited from that understanding had it been able to develop.

Generally, though, Wyke has shown that he is at his very best as a traditional penalty-box poacher. His all-round play is improving as his confidence grows, but it is in that six-yard box that he is most comfortable.

Phil Parkinson knew this, noting in his first press conference that Wyke relied on crosses into the box.

The issue in the year that followed was that too often, Sunderland's delivery was too predictable and from areas where it was too easy for the opposition to defend against.

Particularly in those early months, Wyke was spending far too long close to the halfway line, with back to goal.

The switch to a 3-4-3 saw Sunderland's wing-backs bring that close-range finish into play for a time, but it didn't last.

The nadir of this actually came in Johnson's first game against Wigan Athletic

Johnson conceded days later that watching the game back had left him almost embarrassed, such had been lack of incision and bravery in possession.

Consistency of performance across the team is clearly an ongoing concern, and there have been long stretches of games where the Black Cats have lacked dynamism.

The general trend nevertheless is to a quicker style of play and Wyke has been the main beneficiary.

Wyke is scoring consistently despite a relatively low shot count, an encouraging reflection of the quality of chance Sunderland are starting to create in games.

All of which has brought us to this point; Wyke the first Sunderland striker to register 20 goals in a season since Darren Bent a decade ago.

That is an impressive achievement in itself when you consider how Wyke has had to battle back from those early setbacks. It's even more remarkable when you consider that as the season began, it was fair to make a case that he was the club's fourth-choice striker.

Concerned that a poor end to the season suggested his 3-4-3 had become too predictable, Parkinson moved to a 3-5-2 system that led to opportunities for Will Grigg and Aiden O'Brien.

It was clear, too, that Parkinson was putting a lot of faith in Danny Graham to deliver on his return to the club.

Though a pre-season fixture against Carlisle United had brought a brace for Wyke, his manager noted that at times the striker had been too static and that his physical output was not quite where it needed to be.

Wyke's intelligence and willingness to press was a key reason why he played so regularly even when the goals were few and far between last season, and that element of his game has only grown in importance since Johnson arrived.

He has made himself indispensable and the four-goal star turn against Doncaster was the high point so far of one of the campaign's best stories, one that could leave Sunderland with a dilemma.

Most players out of contract this summer will likely have their futures decided when Sunderland's promotion fate is settled.

There are a few, though, whose value to the club in either division means that discussions will surely have to start soon.

The sheer weight of all-round contribution means that Wyke is increasingly playing himself into that category.

It's testament and credit to the way he has fought his way back into the heart of the side.

Johnson noted on Saturday that playing your way back from adversity can lead to an affection from fans that is stronger than ever.

If there is one downside to Wyke's form it is that he has not been able to enjoy the 'Si Senor' chants his performances have so richly deserved.

Sunderland face an uphill battle to win promotion but Wyke is now a genuine trump card.

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