With so many early comings and one very notable going at Sunderland this summer, attention is quite naturally starting to turn to figuring out what the plan is and how the various different pieces we are assembling fit into it. Everyone has their own ideas, which is the absolute beauty of football, and it is no secret that I welcome wide ranging opinions and the debate that then ensues. However, in this case, if your idea of how Sunderland should set up next season does not include Stephane Sessegnon as the central and pivotal part of the team or, even worse, with him stuck out on the left hand side of a rigid and eye-gouging four-four-two formation then I declare you unequivocally and fundamentally wrong with no right of appeal. No debate, no discussion – you are just wrong, and it is important that you accept it.
Granted, it took Sessegnon a while to get going last season, but lest we forget that there was a direct correlation between his explosion in form, that started with him utterly demolishing Wigan at the Stadium of Light, and him moving into a central position. It must also not be forgotten that Sessegnon's improvement directly correlated with the team's improvement. The seven games that he played in midfield for us prior to moving into a central position yielded just one solitary point. The following five brought nine points. The correlation is striking. If it is all a coincidence then it is an astonishing one.
I mentioned in a Captain's Blog a couple of months back that I saw very little evidence that Steve Bruce signed Sessegnon with any concrete idea of how to use him, and that is a view I maintain. It is not necessarily a criticism of the manager, as for a club such as ours to attract a player like Sessegnon we need to move quickly once the opportunity arises. But whilst Bruce has never been the most tactically imaginative of managers, he needs to learn the lessons that Sessegnon's form has imparted and start building a system around him rather than wondering where he can accommodate him in another. To use Sessegnon on the left flank of a four man midfield would be, quite frankly, a criminal waste. Even if he was granted the freedom to move infield with possession as Steed Malbranque has often been afforded in the past, the defensive responsibilities attached to the role will seriously restrict how often he can be in a position to hurt teams the most. Ask yourselves this – if an opposition attack breaks down then where do you want Stephane Sessegnon? Lurking around the halfway line feeling fresh and free to receive a pass as he did to devastating effect against Wigan and West Ham, or stuck next to his own corner flag knackered having tracked a full back 50 yards?
I must admit to having my worries that Bruce has not learned his lesson and will deploy Sessegnon in a left midfield position laden with defensive responsibilities. I don't think that Bruce has chased Sebastian Larsson for this long only to not use him and I don't think Larsson has chosen to come here without assurances he will have plenty of opportunities to shine in his favoured position. But four-four-two in the modern game, and especially at this level, is not synonymous with the kind of football we could, and should with players like Stephane Sessegnon and Asamoah Gyan available to us, be playing. It is a system that serves a desire to play very rigid and regimented football very well. With willing and energetic runners yet perhaps slightly limited players, it is a system that can be very successful. Stoke City use it in such a manner and their effectiveness in maximizing it is illustrated by their annual steadfast refusal to get dragged into a relegation battle. It was a system that took Roy Hodgson all the way to the Europa League final with Fulham and swiftly away from what looked a likely relegation with West Bromwich Albion, but when he tried to use it at Liverpool with a better quality of player available to him the limitations of the system stifled the match-winning qualities that a more fluid system would have facilitated. In short, it dragged the better players down to it's level, which is workman-like, dour, and unimaginative. Is that what we want happening to Sessegnon? Is that the kind of Sunderland team we want to watch?
With the seeming near-extinction of traditional 'wingers' from the game, the return of inside-forwards, and the advent of the modern marauding full back, four-four-two has had it's day. Modern systems have risen to prominence purely on the strength of their ability to combat and break down their now antiquated forefather. With a player like Sessegnon now at our disposal, the club needs to evolve their football philosophies to get the best out of him which will, in turn, see the team as a whole reap the rewards. It can obviously be dangerous to build a team around one man, especially with an injury record such as ours, but we also find ourselves in the somewhat privileged position of having a player like Steed Malbranque able to provide some cover, and Malbranque above perhaps any other player would benefit from being utilized in a role which is less physically demanding than that of wide midfield.
Finally, our club have some genuinely exciting match-winners at their disposal. It is time we developed the courage to give them the freedom to go out an assert their game and quality on matches at this level rather than restricting them by slotting them into a rigid and outdated system. If other players have to adjust their positions and game slightly to accommodate it then that is infinitely more preferable than the alternative. Larsson or Elmohamady, for example, could easy play more advanced roles, or Larsson more centrally, with far less detriment to the team than asking Sessegnon to play a different role. Trust in ourselves and our quality a little more and, you never know, this team may just be capable of doing some very special things.