Regular readers of Captain's Blog will know that last week we asked just what Steve Bruce's master plan was for Sunderland AFC. Well, presuming he has one in mind, and presuming he lasts long enough in the club's employment to develop it further over the summer, then it can be pretty much safe to assume that Asamoah Gyan will feature heavily in it. So just how can Steve Bruce unlock the enigma of his mercurial Ghanaian and bring a level of consistency and product from him that justifies the record fee spent on him?
There can be little question that Gyan is a naturally likeable character and ever since he introduced himself to the Premier League with a goal of quite outrageous quality at the DW Stadium he has been fully embraced on Wearside. But despite flashes of genuine world class ability, it is fair to say that he has suffered something of a tumultuous first season in England. Arriving unfit and unprepared for the season following his World Cup exertions and, debut heroics aside, it wasn't until early November that Gyan really started to make an impact. But it was the spell of football that directly followed Gyan's first league start for the club that had us all daring to harbour dreams of European football next season, and Gyan was a pivotal part of that. Although that form was not sustained, it still offered a revealing insight into what the player is capable of.
When Darren Bent went to Villa chasing his 30 pieces of silver, the dynamic in the Sunderland team changed dramatically. Whilst Bent's prowess in front of goal was expected to be missed, perhaps more surprising has been how static our front line has looked without him. There can be little question that we have missed his enthusiastic and incisive running of the channels. That isn't Gyan's game at all. Gyan prefers to receive the ball to feet with a hugely frustrating penchant for attempting needlessly extravagant flicks and tricks which midfield players can thrive from if they possess a natural attacking inclination, such as Kieran Richardson or many of Gyan's team mates at International level. However such midfield players are in short supply at Sunderland so disjointed and impotent attacks, resulting in a near total inability to sustain spells of pressure on the opposition's goal, has become a depressingly regular feature of our game.
With that in mind, many may consider the key to unlocking the enigma of Asamoah Gyan to be to flood the midfield with naturally attacking players who are keen to feed off his deft link up play and attack the space beyond him. It is certainly a theory with merit and Richardson's opening goal at Blackpool this season is a very encouraging example of it. But it is not one I think will necessarily bring consistency from the Ghanaian. When I look back over the highlights of Gyan's first season here, I find it striking how they pretty much exclusively comprise of moments of genuine class in the penalty area. His brilliant one-touch finish on the volley and his weaker side against Wigan and incisive first time finish against Stoke. His goals at Stamford Bridge and White Heart Lane showed he can be clinical in one-on-ones with the goalkeeper. Perhaps his finest goal came in the return fixture against Spurs when he received the ball with his back to goal, controlled it with his left foot, and then swivelled on the spot before dispatching it into the bottom corner with his right foot in the blink of an eye. When we add in the couple of opportunist tap-ins, we start to get a picture of what is a razor sharp penalty box striker.
So perhaps when Bruce comes to strengthen his attacking options in the summer, the top priority will be someone who can take the burden off Gyan to perform the donkey work outside the box, and allow him considerably more freedom to concentrate on being the kind on predatory finisher we have lacked of late. Perhaps a strong and unspectacular forward with a fine first touch and a real skill for protecting ball would make the difference. Someone who can receive it, protect it, and hold onto it long enough, and reliably enough, to allow the midfield and full backs the time to push up in support would dramatically improve not only the quantity of possession Sunderland have in the final third but the quality of it too. Surely greater opportunity to deliver the ball into the box would mean greater opportunity for Gyan to get on the end of something and give his team mates greater opportunity to get into the box and support him.
Alternatively, perhaps it is more of a tactical tweak that could provide the key. Certainly, there is someone in the squad right now who was performing a master-class of touch and hold-up play at the start of the season. He is not a strong player. He is not even a big lad. What he is, however, is a very astute and skilled football technician and his name is Steed Malbranque. In the early stages of the season, Malbranque seemed to be really enjoying his football in a role playing just behind the lone striker. He was receiving it and protecting it but doing it with technique and touch rather than physicality. Since then, Stephane Sessegnon has arrived and although he has largely struggled to find his feet, one thing he has shown with regularity is that he possesses a first touch of real quality. When the ball finds him, it sticks.
I think that we will ultimately come to remember Gyan's first season here as a good one. He has come in from a foreign country, without a pre-season, and circumstances has dictated that he has had to take far more responsibility upon his shoulders than is realistically fair to ask of him. But with this summer looking like make-or-break time for Bruce, we may find that his success in unlocking the enigma of Asamoah Gyan will define his entire tenure as Sunderland manager.