Viva La Evolution!

Those who watched the Blackpool game will have been pleasantly surprised by the 'team' work ethic shown by SAFC. In an echo to our previous article "4-5-1: Welcome To The Future", Roker Report's Michael Graham now gives us some cold hard facts about the evolution of SAFC we saw on Saturday...

Those who follow Twitter may have seen a depressingly unsurprising statistic courtesy of Opta last week, telling us that Kieran Richardson had had the most shots in the Premier League this season without scoring. As we all know, he ridded himself of that rather unflattering distinction at Bloomfield Road on Saturday, but seeing promising attacks peter out in an overly ambitious long range attempt on goal from Richardson has become an all-to familiar frustration for Sunderland fans. What will perhaps be a far greater surprise to many is that Richardson’s goals at Bloomfield Road resulted from only his fourth and fifth shots on goal from INSIDE the opposition penalty area this season. In fact, it was only the third Premier League game in nineteen appearances this term during which Richardson has managed a shot from inside the area, the others being the away games at Tottenham and Chelsea in November. By now, I am sure that our more eagle-eyed readers have realised the implications of all this. Put simply, despite being a regular starter and a player with natural attacking instincts, Richardson has only managed shots on goal from advanced positions this season when Darren Bent has not been on the pitch.

It is important to stress here that it would be revisionist history at its very worst to attempt to devalue the contribution that Darren Bent made to the club. He may be a one-dimensional striker, but it is a tremendously effective dimension. He scored goals and he scored them regularly. Fair play to him. He is, however, a ‘final ball’ striker with little interest in, or aptitude for, getting involved in much of anything that preceded the pass he could personally latch on to and bear down on goal. With such a player spearheading our attack the team were forced to play what amounts to percentage football. Not the much maligned and often clichéd ‘hoof ball’ as some nice football was played up until a point, but ultimately the midfield were obliged to release the ball early for our centre forward to run on to. There appeared to be clearly drawn lines outlining the responsibilities of players. Midfielders provide the pass, and the centre forward provides the goals.

Obviously, the fact that Richardson was playing in a more advanced role at Bloomfield Road when he broke his duck for the season can’t be ignored, but he certainly wasn’t the only Sunderland midfield player seemingly revelling in the opportunity to get into the box. Pivotal to all this, of course, was Asamoah Gyan, and in the Ghanaian the Sunderland midfield appear to have found a striker upon which they are prepared to gamble. It is all too easy to condemn a midfield player for failing to contribute enough in the goal charts, but the reality is that in order to entice a player to abandon his defensive responsibilities and break forward he must be at least reasonably assured that it will not be in vain. Gyan appears to offer those assurances, and his 39 attempted passes at Blackpool is testament to that. In the club’s previous away game at Aston Villa at the start of the month, Bent and Gyan, partnering each other up front, attempted only 22 passes between them, a measly 13 of them finding their target.

The result, and more tellingly, the performance at Blackpool has appeared to have galvanized the club and united all concerned. But what is most telling is that, despite the shock massive-money sale of our top-scorer, the prevalent view does not seem to be worrying about a turbulent revolution, but rather excitement at the prospect of evolution. Entrusting Gyan to spearhead the side, largely with his back to goal, could be the prologue to seeing a midfield reinvigorated with verve and attacking purpose and empowered to take up more goalscoring positions. The early signs are certainly good, and seem to suggest we can look forward to seeing a Sunderland team capable of dominating the ball rather than one geared around playing percentage football to utilise one single player to his best effect. Whilst Bent demanded the team took responsibility for allowing him to attack, Gyan seems ready to take responsibility for allowing the team to attack as a whole, and the midfield especially look only too willing to take him up on the offer.

Statistics provided by Guardian Chalkboards.

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