Sunderland analysis: Jermain Defoe return provides a headache for Watford clash

Jermain Defoe
Jermain Defoe
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All season long, there has been a tiresome dialogue about where to fit Jermain Defoe into Sunderland’s set-up.

Good old 4-4-2 may be enjoying something of a renaissance in the Bundesliga, yet on these shores, the 4-2-3-1 remains very much en vogue, with few managers daring to deploy two orthodox strikers.

That prompted Defoe to be a real quandary for Gus Poyet, Dick Advocaat and for the first month of his reign, Sam Allardyce.

Defoe wasn’t ideal as a lone striker. He was even more unconvincing out wide, where he understandably wasn’t at home.

After Sunderland’s opening pre-season friendly in America, when Advocaat used him on the flank, he was noticeably spikey in a post-match interview, declaring: “I’ve never played on the left wing in my life.”

Everyone knew the reality; that this arch-poacher needed to be used in a front two, otherwise... well, Defoe’s place on the bench for Advocaat’s last three games said everything.

But Allardyce immediately made it his mission to find a role for Defoe and the 3-5-2 set-up has been ideal for him.

After recovering from a minor hamstring problem, Defoe will surely return to the starting XI for this Saturday’s visit of Watford after the chances missed at Arsenal prompted Allardyce to bemoan the striker’s absence.

“All the other lads can score goals, but they’re not natural finishers. Jermain is,” he said.

With Fabio Borini proving underwhelming at the Emirates – both with that golden spurned early chance and almost gifting Arsenal the lead seconds after Olivier Giroud’s own goal – there is an obvious player for Defoe to replace too.

Yet Allardyce faces that familiar headache over how to set up the side to get the best out of Defoe.

The absence of injured pair Seb Larsson and Lee Cattermole complicates matters significantly.

Had the pair been fit, then Allardyce could easily have reverted to the straightforward 3-5-2 that proved so successful against Crystal Palace and Stoke, in a game which promises to be equally tightly-poised.

But after shoe-horning ola Toivonen into a more defensive role against Arsenal last weekend, will Allardyce realistically restore either Jack Rodwell or Jordi Gomez to the starting XI to accommodate Defoe?

Allardyce doesn’t seem to have been convinced by either yet.

Plus, can Allardyce really afford to drop Duncan Watmore at present?

A week or two ago, Watmore looked ideal as an impact substitute, yet the rate of his development and acclimatisation to Premier League football is so rapid, that it’s becoming difficult for Allardyce to leave him out.

Yes, he should have scored at the Emirates, but he had the Arsenal defence on the back-foot throughout – Laurent Koscielny resorting to a crude challenge to halt the 21-year-old’s direct running.

If he was to use Watmore and Defoe alongside Steven Fletcher, then Allardyce could not feasibly keep faith with the 5-4-1 system at Arsenal.

That would simply prompt a repeat of Defoe as a makeshift winger from the start of the season.

But could Defoe and Fletcher remain together up front, while Watmore has a splash more licence in a free role in behind the pair?

With the solid base stemming from the back five, it’s feasible.

However, will Allardyce feel that such a set-up – akin to the one which saw Sunderland routed 6-2 at Everton – is too open against a Watford side who have been defensively resilient and have two poachers themselves?

There’s no easy answer, even though Allardyce would far rather have a headache over Defoe’s inclusion than continue to be without a striker.

This week is going to be yet another one where the Defoe ‘conundrum’ consumes the thinking of the Sunderland manager.