Why Sunderland haven't seen the best of Leeds United loanee Joe Gelhardt following January transfer
One of Tony Mowbray’s big selection dilemmas for Sunday’s trip to Norwich is whether to stick with Leeds United loanee Joe Gelhardt.
The 20-year-old forward was replaced at half-time during last weekend’s 5-1 defeat by Stoke, with Mowbray admitting the player was low on confidence following a run of one goal in seven matches.
Yet the reality is, while several Championship clubs were looking to sign him in January, it wasn’t Sunderland's intention for Gelhardt to lead the line on his own.
When the forward arrived on Wearside on the Friday before January’s FA Cup tie at Fulham, Ross Stewart had just scored six goals in his last seven appearances, while the club were still hopeful they could sign another up-and-coming centre-forward on a permanent deal.
The plan was then for Gelhardt to play just behind the team’s number nine, as he had predominantly done for Leeds, where he could drop into deeper positions and link up play.
Any ideas the 20-year-old was someone who could act as a back-up for Stewart or play a similar role in the team were simply unrealistic for a player who has scored twice in 41 appearances for Leeds.
As it’s turned out, following Stewart’s season-ending injury and Sunderland’s failed attempts to sign another striker, it is the task Gelhardt has been faced with.
It’s not just the fact Stewart has scored 11 goals in 15 appearances this season, but also the Scot’s ability to run in behind, chase balls into the channels and stretch opposition defences – which he demonstrated emphatically during January’s 2-0 win over Middlesbrough.
Gelhardt has shown he has excellent technical ability when he joins in with Sunderland’s passing exchanges, yet he’s playing in a side whose attacking players also prefer receiving the ball to feet.
Just because Sunderland are playing without a natural centre-forward doesn’t mean they can’t still be an attacking force. Let’s not forget that many of Europe’s top clubs have excelled playing with a false nine who can create space for others by coming to the ball.
Yet for the system to be effective there needs to be a balance, with players who are consistently prepared to make forward runs off the ball.
At Sunderland, wingers Patrick Roberts and Jack Clarke have both been key players for Tony Mowbray’s side this season but are most effective when they are running at opponents in possession.
Alex Pritchard was one of the side’s top performers before suffering an injury setback at the end of last year, but has excelled as a creative player rather than someone getting on the end of chances.
And while Manchester United loanee Amad has scored eight league goals this term, the 20-year-old is also someone who prefers receiving the ball to feet.
In recent matches Sunderland have struggled to find the right set-up with their attacking play, with opponents able to press higher up the pitch without worrying about what could happen behind them.
Mowbray will now have to assess the best offensive combination, whether that means sticking with Gelhardt or moving one of his other forward players further up the pitch.
Whichever option he chooses, the Sunderland boss will need his players to adapt as they look for attacking solutions.