Post-match analysis: January swoop to address Sunderland’s striking deficiency?

Jozy Altidore controls the ball under pressure from Norwich's Steven Whittaker. Picture by Peter Berry
Jozy Altidore controls the ball under pressure from Norwich's Steven Whittaker. Picture by Peter Berry
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GUS POYET is a wily character when answering questions on the transfer market.

The Sunderland head coach is happy to generalise, but when it comes to pinning the Uruguayan down on specific players and their chances of leaving or arriving at the Stadium of Light, he invariably produces a wry smile and the accompanying brush off.

But several educated guesses can be made on where Poyet will look to strengthen next week, if – and it’s an even bigger if after Saturday’s stalemate made Sunderland’s position ever more ominous – funds are forthcoming in the transfer window.

A goal-scoring central midfielder has to be top of the list, with Craig Gardner still the only player in that position to have netted in the Premier League this season.

An alternative specialist left-back wouldn’t go amiss – even if Phil Bardsley has been one of Sunderland’s best performers over recent weeks – while a back-up goalkeeper may be required, with Keiren Westwood in line for shoulder surgery.

But does a new striker figure on the shopping list too?

On paper, it looks a distant priority, with almost £20million shelled out on Steven Fletcher and Jozy Altidore, Connor Wickham returning to Wearside on New Year’s Day and Poyet primarily using just one central frontman.

Yet Sunderland’s goal threat on Saturday was again minimal, as they trudged to a goalless draw for the third time in a row against one of the sides alongside them in the bottom half.

Just 12 goals in 17 Premier League games tells its own story about why Sunderland are propping up the table at Christmas.

Blame should not just be labelled against the man leading the line.

The service into the penalty area was pretty dire on Saturday.

Far from the slick passing approach which was has been so heartening under Poyet, this was back to the bad old days of scrappy, nervy and panicky football, with precious little evidence of quality in the final third.

Sunderland either persisted with poorly-struck shots from distance, over-complicated their approach play or delivered over-hit crosses onto the heads of Sebastien Bassong and Michael Turner.

The best chance the Black Cats created – Wes Brown’s header against the post – stemmed from a sliced clearance from Turner, rather than any conscious attacking move.

But while the service into the frontmen throughout the season has been poor, so is the goals return of Altidore and Fletcher.

The duo have netted just four times between them in all competitions – that’s only one more than the tally of joint top scorer Bardsley.

And while Fletcher has fed on scraps this season, the supporting cast weren’t drastically more creative last time around and he still had eight goals to his name by Christmas.

In both of the last two league games, Poyet has introduced Fletcher from the bench in the second half hoping for an impact and the Scot has struggled to get involved.

Whether it’s through a lack of pre-season for a second consecutive year, the blow of losing his place in the starting line-up or a two-month dry spell, Fletcher currently looks a shadow of the arch-predator from his maiden campaign on Wearside.

Altidore’s greater physical presence and pace has seen him move above the former Wolves man in the pecking order, yet the American offered a similarly minimal threat at the weekend.

The 24-year-old’s first touch was repeatedly loose and when he did have half a chance to find the net, he opted to bring Brown’s cushioned header under control, rather than hitting it first time, which allowed Turner the chance to block.

That sense of almost panic in the penalty area was contagious among Sunderland’s squad. They seemed far happier going for Hollywood shots from 25 yards, rather than finishing off patient moves with any patience around the box.

But neither striker worried or stretched Norwich’s defence.

The Canaries came with the same gameplan as they showed last season in Martin O’Neill’s penultimate game in charge – sit deep and challenge Sunderland to break them down.

It was all too easy for Chris Hughton’s side to soak up Sunderland’s stodgy and predictable approach play.

Yet on the rare occasions when either Altidore or Fletcher got on the ball, Norwich’s centre-halves comfortably smothered them.

That, coupled with their lack of goals, is a major concern.

If Sunderland are going to stage a second-half-of-the-season revival, which needs to be even more spectacular after Saturday’s fluffed opportunity, they need a drastic improvement in their goals return.

On paper, Fletcher and Altidore know where the goal is.

But, on paper, Norwich was a home banker too.

Defensively, Sunderland have clearly improved under Poyet, although that progress will be severely tested after Brown’s red card and the shoulder problem which hampered John O’Shea during the second half.

By the modern criteria on slide tackles, Brown’s scissor challenge provoked a predictable red card from Martin Atkinson.

Whether you argue that it was a yellow or red, it is indisputable that the tackle was entirely unnecessary. For a player of Brown’s experience, he should have known better than to let frustration get the better of him.

The absence of Sunderland’s top performer under Poyet’s stewardship is an almighty blow for the next three matches against Everton, Cardiff and Aston Villa – particularly as Sunderland need to be looking at winning at least two of them.

But forget about the defence for a moment. To emerge victorious from either of the next two, Sunderland need to unearth a first away goal since August.

On current form, neither Fletcher nor Altidore looks capable of scoring it.

If the money is available, surely Poyet would be remiss not to at least consider an alternative in the transfer window.

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