Lets talk some numbers. Did you know that 218 days have now passed since Darren Bent left Sunderland for Aston Villa? Whether you look at that as roughly 31 weeks, or 5232 hours, or 313,920 minutes, or 18,835,200 seconds, it is undeniable that it is a fair chunk of time. Whilst the club was dropping like a stone down the Premier League last winter, those advocating patience, myself included, pointed at Bruce not having a chance to replace his top striker as a corner stone of the argument. So with ample opportunity having now passed, and a sizeable amount of money spent, it is worth revisiting the debate. Has Bruce done enough to replace the cutting edge that Darren Bent provided?
It will be lost in the furore of losing a derby match, of course, but the truth is there was plenty to admire about Sunderland's attacking play in the first half against Newcastle. Stephane Sessegnon was being found in good positions, orchestrating everything as we hoped he would and getting some good attempts on goal. Jack Colback was making some lovely runs and some of the delivery into the box was very good. Many will undoubtedly scoff at that suggestion, but more than once a ball played into a good area failed to get the touch, finish, or drop it deserved during that first half. It was a depressingly familiar story at Brighton, too.
So was that inability to make good positions and delivery count purely down to bad luck or is there something more tangible behind it? It is easy to look at a failure to score and conclude that the strikers are not good enough, but I think there can be little doubt that Gyan and Sessegnon are very well capable of putting the ball in the net. To me it boils down to two key points – not enough men in the box, and not enough physical presence in the box.
With Ji Dong-won and Connor Wickham on the bench, there is a more physical option available to Bruce. The question is whether or not he trusts it. Since signing both, Bruce has been eager to emphasise the need for patience with them. Rightly so, too. Ji must be afforded the chance to adapt to the English game and culture and, despite his hefty transfer fee, it must be remembered that Wickham is still so young he is eligible to play academy football for Sunderland. We won't be writing these lads off, but that patience doesn't help Sunderland win or change games now, and they are the only options at present. Bruce must start showing more faith in them to handle the stage now and make an impact, or he must find another striking option from somewhere before the window shuts. It really is that simple.
The synergy of the current front two must also inevitably come into the discussion here. Whilst there can be little debate with regard the individual quality of Asamoah Gyan and Stephane Sessegnon, they can both be regarded as free spirits to some extent. For all Gyan's energy and explosiveness he is never likely to offer much of a reliable central outlet, preferring instead to drift out wide or deeper to get involved in the play, and nor is it probably fair to ask him to either. Granted, he plays the role of a lone striker very well at International level for Ghana, but the physical demands of that are a far cry from bossing seasoned and grizzled defenders in the Premier League on a weekly basis. It seems apparent that the Ghanaian is a player who would benefit immeasurably from the freedom that would come with being deployed alongside a more physical forward capable of occupying centre halves. Someone able to offer the kind of constant penalty box presence that Gyan can not.
If Steve Bruce has been unable to solve the problem in the transfer market, which is perfectly understandable given that replacing a reliably prolific forward like Darren Bent is clearly not an easy task, then solving it on the training ground must surely be the next port of call. Seven months is ample opportunity to devise and develop a new system to replace his contribution, yet you'd have to say that the season so far has offered no evidence of any such plan existing. This season's performances have been largely lackluster and bereft of penetration and incision as the midfield finds itself unsure of how to service their front players. This may be a new squad of players, but it is one that has had the benefit of weeks together on the training pitch. No one is demanding perfection at this stage, but it certainly shouldn't be this disjointed either. How much longer can Bruce persist with the static and flat midfield four? Surely if no one man can bare the burden of providing the goals and physical presence required to provide some cutting edge, then weight of numbers is the next best option. A more modern and fluid system would certainly allow for this.
Despite a summer in which he has largely been heralded for his transfer market acumen, I think it is apparent that Bruce has failed to adequately replace the influence of Darren Bent, and after spending £10m on strikers this summer that has to be a genuine worry and a perfectly fair yet serious criticism. A solution must be found, and one that probably encompasses both a tactical rethink and changes in personnel. With the final week of the transfer window now upon us following a derby defeat and crashing out of a cup competition at the first hurdle (again), Bruce may well find himself about to enter the week that will define his legacy at Sunderland – and with good-will in the stands starting to wear dangerously thin, possibly determine his future too.