Sam Allardyce’s decision to field three defensive-minded midfielders for back-to-back home games has prompted criticism from a section of Sunderland supporters as the Black Cats’ plight worsens.
Sunderland have been able to match the industry of both West Brom and Leicester, but when the Black Cats so desperately needed to emerge victorious from one of those encounters, Allardyce’s men drew a blank in both.
Wasteful finishing has been Sunderland’s primary shortcoming, with Jack Rodwell, Fabio Borini and Jermain Defoe all guilty during the last two games.
But would an extra attacking player in the starting XI have helped Sunderland find that elusive breakthrough and narrow the four-point gap with Norwich?
Sunderland can’t afford another blank at Carrow Road on Saturday lunchtime, when anything less than victory looks like condemning Allardyce’s side to the Championship.
Ironically, the use of Lee Cattermole, Yann M’Vila and Jan Kirchhoff in the middle of the park is perhaps best-suited to away games, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Allardyce persist with the trio in Norfolk.
“We’ll be focused on getting a clean sheet first and foremost (at Norwich)” was Allardyce’s mantra after the 2-0 defeat to Leicester:
But the Sunderland boss conceded that his side’s passing was sub-par against the Foxes and knows that Saturday’s game is a last-chance saloon opportunity for a team who have proved masters at fluffing open goals over recent weeks.
“Let’s see if we can take advantage of their nerves, with them being at home and the onus on them to attack,” he said.
If Allardyce decides to change personnel though, his options are limited to four realistic possibilities – Rodwell, Seb Larsson, Jeremain Lens and Dame N’Doye – none of which necessarily tick every box.
Rodwell performed well in the three games prior to being harshly left out for Cattermole and does offer a better balance to the midfield trio.
But the £10million man continues to perfect the knack of disappointing, just as it appears he has turned a corner.
That miss in the final 10 minutes against Leicester really was awful, particularly as his composure similarly failed him on a couple of occasions in February’s defeat at West Ham.
Larsson is an alternative like-for-like swap for one of the middle men and there is a groundswell of support for his return to the fold.
It has been a miserable campaign for the last year’s Player of the Season with major question marks over whether he will still be at the club next season, regardless of which division they are in.
But Larsson’s work-rate and experience of relegation battles are attractive qualities, if (and it’s a big ‘if’) he can shake off the rust from four-and-a-half months without a Premier League start.
Certainly, Larsson appears less of a risk than Lens or N’Doye, yet have Sunderland reached the stage where they have to gamble?
Lens made a generally positive impression from the bench against Leicester in his first appearance since February 2, yet the reservations over the Dutch international’s attitude and work-rate persist.
Saturday’s game promises to be helter-skelter, nervy and physical, so Sunderland can ill-afford anyone not pulling their weight.
N’Doye – the weakest of Sunderland’s January signings – has not proved to be much better, with the memory of that flimsy attempt to halt Georginio Wijnaldum for Newcastle’s equaliser in last month’s Tyne-Wear derby still vivid.
The ex-Hull man partnered Jermain Defoe down the middle when he was introduced on Sunday, rather than operating out wide, yet it’s difficult to see Allardyce suddenly opting for an orthodox front two.
However, both Lens and N’Doye may be integral in the final half-hour at Carrow Road.
The plan will surely be to keep proceedings tight early on, frustrate the crowd and then become more adventurous in the search for a compulsory winner in the latter stages.
Although Allardyce’s substitutions have raised question marks over recent weeks, the bench on Saturday may actually turn out to be more important than the starting XI.