Sam Allardyce said it best in his post-match interview after the Aston Villa game, "Thank God for Jermain Defoe".
The diminutive former England striker proved three crucial things with his two goal performance on Saturday: Premiership teams need a proven goalscorer to have any chance of surviving in this league, investing in players of proven class and experience is a necessary fact of Premiership survival and Sunderland must do everything they can to accommodate Defoe’s incredible knack for scoring goals if they are to have any chance of avoiding relegation this season.
Whilst Defoe scored the two goals that secured a vital three points for Sam Allardyce’s men there is no question that the system Sunderland deployed was not best suited to Defoe's style of play. While he may still be remarkably quick for a 33 year old and his positional play is as good as anyones, Defoe is certainly not a lone striker.
Time and again since moving to Sunderland he has shown his willingness to put in the hard yards for the team, whether it be chasing back, tracking runs or closing down opposition defenders. However, the nagging feeling is that this is a waste of Defoe’s talents. In him Sunderland have a player with an incredible goalscoring record and years of Premiership experience and yet he is seemingly under instruction to do the work of a box-to-box midfielder. A player like Defoe should be playing off the shoulder of the last defender waiting to pounce on any mistakes rather than chasing the opposition fullbacks to the edge of his own box.
There is also the sense that Defoe’s chasing back is largely due to how little effect he has as a lone striker. He doesn’t have the physical strength or size to trouble defences with his physique and while he is still quick he does not have the kind of electric pace that the likes of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez have employed to such devastating effect for Leicester this season. Instead, Defoe’s strength is his finishing which he has shown is utterly undiminished. To make use of this Defoe needs to be in and around the opposition penalty box and be given the kind of support that he will never get playing as a lone striker.
The obvious remedy to this is to revert to the 3-5-2 system which showed such promise, though admittedly it did fall apart with the loss of key players to injury.
The partnership between Steven Fletcher and Defoe was showing signs of the kind of chemistry Sunderland have been lacking between strike partners since the heyday of Quinn and Philipps. Even if Fletcher does not play, Sunderland are not short of options for a strike partner for Defoe. Fabio Borini has the energy and pace to create space for Defoe and is not a bad finisher himself on his day, Duncan Watmore never seems to stop running and his direct approach would complement Defoe as well as troubling defences with his pace and Danny Graham, while short of true Premiership quality, would provide a physical presence up front which might create more space for Defoe.
The one big issue with the 3-5-2 system is the lack of quality backup options at Allardyce’s disposal, particularly at centre back and in central midfield. Injuries or suspensions to Lee Cattermole and Yann M’Vila would leave Sunderland sorely short of the kind of imposing physical presence in the centre of the park that is necessary for the 3-5-2 to flourish and much the same could be said of injury or suspension to the already sparce options at centre back.
If Sunderland wish to survive then these look like the areas where Allardyce must do the most serious reinforcing. The move for Lorient’s Lamine Kone is a promising one but it will take more than one signing to get Sunderland’s squad to a high enough level. However, if they can sufficiently reinforce these key positions and make full use of Jermain Defoe then there is certainly hope for Sunderland this season.