Wednesday’s game against Swansea emphasised for Sunderland fans three things they really should already know -
- Jermain Defoe is exactly the proven finisher our team has been crying out for since the departure to Aston Villa of a player who will remain unnamed;
- Very occasionally our team’s luck seems to balance itself out;
- For the first time in recent memory we have a Sunderland squad featuring a sufficient number of pacey players to make a real impact against Premiership defences.
While it would be easy to single out Defoe as the star man yet again - and there is no doubting that he is crucial to Sunderland’s survival hopes this season – the real standout performer of Wednesday’s match was Patrick van Aanholt.
Not for the first time he showed shades of Gareth Bale in his breakthrough season for Tottenham, with a series of lung-busting runs down the left flank showcasing the electric pace that makes him such a dangerous prospect for opposition defences. In addition, he highlighted his natural attacking flair with a wonderfully taken goal, albeit aided by a fortunate deflection, and a magnificent cross for Jermain Defoe to complete his hattrick with the simplest of tap-ins.
Admittedly, van Aanholt is not a fantastic left back and is seriously lacking in defensive discipline and awareness, but, what he lacks in defensive ability he more than makes up for with the threat he provides going forward.
We need only look at the effect Riyad Mahrez has had for Leicester to see what van Aanholt might bring to Sunderland as a purely attacking player, but unfortunately with our current dearth of quality defensive options he is likely to remain our first choice left back for the foreseeable future.
This need not curb van Aanholt’s attacking instincts, nor prevent him from wreaking havoc on opposition defenders. The key is likely to lie in Sunderland’s January transfer business.
As we saw so clearly in the victory at Crystal Palace, the 3-5-2 formation with van Aanholt playing as a wing-back allowed the Dutchman to utilise his ability to beat players with pure pace without having to worry about defensive cover, with this being provided by the triumvirate of central defenders. This system obviously relies on two things though, firstly that Sam Allardyce has enough experienced central defenders fit to play this formation week-in-week-out and secondly that one of the team’s defensive leaders, either John O’Shea or Younes Kaboul is fit, as the three man defence looked wildly disorganised without one of these two present.
Allardyce has made a promising start in regard to reinforcing his defensive options with the signing of Jan Kirchoff and the obligatory Sunderland-centric transfer saga now raging over the signing of Ivorian defender Lamine Kone.
Kirchoff is a relatively risk free signing, costing under one million quid and signing a reasonably short-term deal, as well as having the pedigree of having signed for Bayern Munich – hardly a team known for signing mugs. Kone will also, if a deal can be reached, provide the kind of physical presence that Sunderland’s defence has been lacking in recent seasons.
If Allardyce can mould the players at his disposal into a cohesive defensive unit then this should allow the attacking talents of van Aanholt and his fellow fullbacks DeAndre Yedlin and Billy Jones to perform more freely going forward and hopefully inject the kind of pace in attack that a meandering Sunderland team have been in such dire need of for so long.