It has certainly been a magnificently busy summer of arrivals at Sunderland. But when the team lined up for its first pre-season outing of the summer at Bootham Crescent with Jack Colback deployed on the left hand side of midfield, it highlighted one massive hole in Bruce's rebuilding plans that has yet to be filled. Regular readers of Roker Report at this point will probably be sitting somewhere reading this thinking "oh eck... that numpty is here to have another pop at Phil Bardsley", and some of you will even be letting out a slight sigh of disdain at the prospect of the merest semblance of criticism heading in the direction of your beloved hero. But fear not. I am not here to focus individuals or draw conclusions. Instead, my focus this week is on the team itself and how much it suffers from the lack of a left sided option and why it is therefore so crucial we fix it.
With the exception of Kieran Richardson, every player who spent a reasonable amount of time playing on Sunderland's left side last season had one thing in common – they were right footed. This, in itself, is not a problem. Who amongst us could ever forget the majesty of Allan Johnston jinking inside from the left touchline onto his favoured right foot before bending a beauty into the top corner? But what often went unnoticed was what happened just before that, because if Michael Gray had not possessed the natural inclination required to attack the space on the left hand side that his partner had just vacated to cut inside, then without question Johnston would not have been afforded the time and space to do what he did. Gray entering the picture, even without ever touching the ball, dragged a defender away and caused the split-second indecision in another to create the space for his team mate. In short, it was a partnership and such a partnership does not exist at Sunderland from the current squad, and nor does one ever look like developing.
The Johnston and Gray example really serves to illustrate how crucial it is we add a naturally left sided player to the side this summer. At present, we don't use half the pitch, and that is music to the ears of teams visiting the Stadium of Light hoping to be narrow and rigid and funnel the home attacks into a congested central area. It is the starting point of the vast majority of away performances in the Premier League and right now we are not even contesting their ability to do it. Our left back gets possession and willingly comes inside – exactly where the opposition want him. Our left midfield player gets possession and willingly comes inside – exactly where the opposition want him, and all the while the space they vacate is not being exploited. Is it any wonder our home form dipped fairly dramatically last season when we so compliantly surrender half our own pitch?
So if we assume that Phil Bardsley has done enough in Steve Bruce's mind to cement his place at left back for the upcoming campaign, then a naturally left footed winger in front of him to stretch the pitch and opposition defence is simply a necessity. A Ryan Giggs to his Denis Irwin, if you like. Many are also under the impression, based upon a single successful attempt amidst dozens of failed ones, that Bardsley is rather handy cutting inside onto his favoured foot and shooting at goal. Well, I am not entirely convinced of that, but a team mate offering a pass for the opposition to cover on his outside will certainly do Bardsley and his goalscoring aspirations no harm. However, players such as Max Gradel, Alexander Hleb, David Hoilett, Tom Cleverly, Danny Welbeck, or any other right-footed left midfielders who's names have been bandied around by fans this summer are of no more use to us than Steed Malbranque is right now. They would solve absolutely nothing.
Richardson being the preferred left back option would at least open up the option of using a right footed player on the left hand side of midfield. Malbranque's days as a relevance to a Premier League level game of football seem to be behind him, at least in a starting role, but it could bring Ji Dong-Won into the picture. Ji is no stranger to the position and he has been used there often at International level. It would also afford him the opportunity to play games without the pressure to produce goals immediately, as would be the case if he went straight in up front. However, does relying solely on a player of Richardson's dubious injury record really solve or change anything? Especially when the only real viable option it appears to open up, assuming Bruce goes with the 4-4-1-1 system he has been championing this summer, is an untried non-English-speaking kid playing out of position? That'll be a 'no', then.
It is probably worth noting at this time, that the absence of a natural left winger is a depressingly familiar one for Sunderland fans. It is not something that has crept up on the club and caught them unaware like the striker shortage did last season. By my reckoning, the last natural left winger the club had in its first team squad was Ross Wallace – and he left the club three years ago. It is a shortcoming that we can no longer put off rectifying and I am sure I am not the only one who is a little surprised, given the money we have spent in that time and the amount of players that have been brought in, that we are still so short in this area.
With Steve Bruce openly admitting that a "natural wide left player" is his priority in the transfer market now the signs are encouraging. It is also something of a relief that, given these comments, Bruce does not consider David Vaughan to be a wide player. Given Bruce's acknowledgement, we can perhaps finally feel confident that the situation will be addressed, especially now that the Charles N'Zogbia basket containing all of our eggs has seemingly been removed from the table. I hope there is a plan B, because whichever way we look at it, it is imperative that a natural left sided player be acquired and, if we make sure it's a good one, it could very well be the key to unlocking the door to the fabled next level.