Talking Tactics: What Can A Fletcher-Wickham Partnership Offer?

Clive Mason

Cup games are notoriously difficult for our Talking Tactics section. With limited highlights and even fewer statistical resources devoted to such games, a tactical dissection of Saturday's draw at Bolton was never likely to be easy. With that in mind we decided to instead analyse a possibility that the weekend's tie threw up - a potential Steven Fletcher and Connor Wickham partnership up front.

Now, to start off, it is fair to say that we know plenty about Steven Fletcher already. Since signing from Wolves in the summer he's been a key feature in this Sunderland team - often carrying the rest of the team on the shoulder of his goals, having scored eight in the league already this term.

Fletcher has already carved out a reputation as a clinical finisher. 59% of his shots this season have been on target, while he has converted a colossal 67% of his 'Clear Cut Chances'.

In comparison, Wickham somewhat pales. This is in many ways down to his lack of game time this season - he has featured in only five Premier League games so far, starting just one. That said, he notched his first goal of the season at Bolton on Saturday, and has been accurate with 67% of of his shots in the league so far (mind, there have only been six attempts in his 191 on-field minutes).

However, as shown at Bolton, despite his goal, Wickham's presence on the field can potentially offer a lot more than simply scoring goals. Though Fletcher has found the net frequently this season, it has often been largely down to his own good work; there has been a fluency lacking between him and Sunderland's other attacking players.

Should Martin O'Neill choose to deploy these two men together, then a need to improve such fluency will be a key factor. It should be noted, however, that those hoping for a simplistic setup of "two up front" will likely be left disappointed. A straight 4-4-2 system is all but dead at the top level, so the likelihood of Sunderland deploying Wickham and Fletcher directly alongside one another is highly unlikely.

What is much more likely is the possibility that O'Neill will seek to play one behind the other. The natural choice, given Fletcher's goalscoring prowess, would seem to be that the Scotsman should be played furthest forward. Yet, Wickham's all-round play suggests the opposite may be the better option.

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During his one start this season, against Chelsea, Wickham linked up regular with Stephane Sessegnon. The young striker, even up against David Luiz and Gary Cahill, proved adept at controlling balls played up to him, turning and playing a pass forward to his onrushing teammate. Of course, Sessegnon's shooting leaves a lot to be desired. Should Fletcher be deployed in a slightly deeper role, then Sunderland could see great benefits come of the switch.

This would then leave the question of where Sessegnon would fit in. Though it may seem sacrilege, there is a convincing argument that the Beninese should be dropped from the first team. Sessegnon has been very hit-and-miss thus far and, through the middle, often struggles to impact games. An alternative would be to move him out wide, dropping one of James McClean or Adam Johnson.

But anyway, back to the point at hand. The inclusion of Wickham, a natural striker, would see the side's two highest players playing much closer to one another than Sessegnon and Fletcher currently are. In the game at Norwich, where Wickham replaced the injured Fletcher at half-time, the former received the ball noticeably higher up the field, and far more frequently. Sunderland's penchant for sending long balls from the back, often from Simon Mignolet, seems to be a tactic more suited to Wickham that his elder teammate. This was firmly underlined in the Chelsea game, where Wickham won a good percentage of his aerial duels.

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The use of Wickham in the side would see Fletcher's responsibilities shorn down to concentrate on that which he does best - scoring goals. With Wickham there to win the ball in the air and/or hold it up, Fletcher could funnel his efforts into staying central and getting ahead of his teammate, moving from deep into goalscoring positions. When isolated, Fletcher has often felt the need to move out wide to find possession. This happened frequently against Spurs recently, with poor results. The inclusion of Wickham in the side would lessen his need to do this.

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Of course, there would be ramifications elsewhere if this new strategy was used. The main reason behind the defunct nature of playing two strikers at the top level is that, in an era when most sides select five midfielders, it leaves a team outnumbered in the centre. Wickham actually offers a decent defensive presence when without the ball, winning tackles and often contributing interceptions, but if he was played at the top of his side's formation then his defensive contributions would be limited.

As a result, the likelihood of the two playing together probably hinges on Martin O'Neill's January transfer activity. Though many saw the second half display at Bolton as vindication for their belief that Wickham and Fletcher should have started together long ago, it must be remembered that this was against lower league opposition. The reason O'Neill has not used the two together previously is simple - his central midfield simply isn't strong enough to bear the weight of responsibility that subsequently falls upon them.

When Lee Cattermole returns from injury, this may change. Also, with heavy rumours circulating that Sunderland are seeking to sign Alfred N'Diaye, the need for a combative, box-to-box midfielder seems to be being addressed. Should N'Diaye, or someone of his ilk, be signed in January, then O'Neill would surely feel more comfortable in employing two strikers.

Many may reason that it is worth the risk even without Cattermole or a new signing. Sunderland may cede more of the ball but, if they can remain compact, they could well weather the storm before then presenting themselves with greater attacking options. This is up for debate. What certainly isn't is that, with each passing game, Connor Wickham makes the argument for his inclusion an ever more difficult one to rebut.

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