After Saturday's win over Manchester United, most fans have been talking about the performances of new boys Khazri, Koné and N'Doye. The team as a whole played exceptionally well, however the reintroduction to the midfield of Jack Rodwell for 75 mins hasn't really been talked about.
Rodwell replaced the injured Jan Kirchhoff very early on and there was a tangible nervousness in the air at the time, as Rodwell has hardly proven himself reliable or competent in a Sunderland shirt thus far. Though Lee Cattermole gets a lot of media attention for his earned reputation as a full blooded and impulsive tackler, I worry more about Rodwell's judgment and habit of flying into tackles than Cattermole's.
Rodwell did not do too badly, all things considered. Though not what you would call individually impressive - more part of an all round excellent defensive display - there were moments where he demonstrated some ability, tenacity and commitment. He tracked back excellently to tackle Jesse Lingard and recover possession, blocked goal bound shots, while he displayed calmness on the ball on several occasions.
There is of course a difference between an improvement on poor performances, and a good performance. Rodwell was far from awe-inspiring, but his performance was a long overdue positive one and can give him a much needed confidence boost. However, some fans may still be waiting for a a player to emerge that does not exist, if they listened to the talk of the club and Rodwell at the time of his transfer.
When we signed Rodwell in Summer 2014, I was interested more than excited. Here was a player who had broken into the Everton team and had pundits purring at his abilities. England recognition at junior and U21 levels corresponded with his burgeoning reputation, culminating in a senior England debut in November 2011 and a £12m move to Manchester City in the summer of 2012.
Rodwell had always been a combative and defensively proficient midfielder. He scored a few goals, but with no regularity and up until his breakthrough at Everton, he was a centre back. His spell at Manchester City did not herald the arrival of a consistently more attacking side to his game, while frequent injuries hampered his progress.
Just before Rodwell signed for Sunderland, head coach Gus Poyet said;
"We are looking for a box-to-box midfielder who can give us some goals...That's not an easy one. Midfielders who are scoring goals are quite expensive."
This elusive goal threat from midfield would turn out to be Rodwell.
Upon joining, Rodwell said:
"I'm just going to give my all every game, be a good box-to-box midfielder, hopefully score some goals and I will always give it 100 per cent."
These are strange statements when considering Rodwell's best goal scoring season was four goals in 2009/10. I realise that he was young during the bulk of the games in his career and he may have gone on to improve his goal tally given a change in circumstances over the last six years. However, the facts remain that there was no evidence that he had become a dynamic, goalscoring midfielder worth £10m in the time between his four goals in 2009-10 and signing for Sunderland in 2014.
We can hardly blame Rodwell for this. If we approach a player with the proposition of performing a certain role, that player cannot be expected to correct us, dismiss their suitability and suggest we look elsewhere, particularly if they want to leave their current club. His signing must go down as another entry in the infamous list of Sunderland scouting blunders, rather than a failure on Rodwell's part to produce previous form. This form, unfortunately, never really existed.
At Everton, he broke forward and scored with a few neat finishes, but one has to wonder whether after so many injuries - physically or psychologically - a burst of pace still resides in Rodwell that could herald a return to these kind of goals, however rare they may be. He certainly appears rather ungainly and lethargic when in a foot race with opposition players, while his poorly timed tackles illustrate the concern that he is perhaps a yard slower than he once was. He can adapt his timing to any loss of pace as he plays more top flight minutes, but developing the pace to burst past players, or learning to be tricky and skilful on the ball is akin to hoping Rodwell can become a completely new player.
Judging from his performances at Sunderland, it appears Rodwell has little to offer in the attacking third. Most of his goals for us have been scored with his head, usually from corners. I can't see him spraying 40 yard passes, making incisive through balls or scoring goals regularly. He will, in my view, have to compete for a deep lying midfield role, in order to win a place in the team. Ahead of him at the moment are M'Vila and Cattermole, while Kirchhoff looks far more competent and composed in that role from what we have seen, though they both were originally centre backs and are of a similar build.
The fact of the matter is, we invested £10m in Rodwell with a view to him being our goal threat from midfield. This is a significant amount of money that we cannot afford to write off, despite the fact that his use may not be what was originally intended. With over three years left to run on his contract and his wages far better than he would get elsewhere, it is unlikely that we would be able to sell him on.
The initial expectations placed on him demanded new aspects of his game be developed immediately, leaving the fans underwhelmed and Rodwell with a mountain to climb. He is capable of scoring a few goals, but being a teams attacking hub and goal threat in midfield is clearly not his game. With this being the case, it is important we come to expect realistic things of him. A marginal improvement in performance is nothing to get carried away about, but must be appreciated if we are to rebuild his fragile confidence and get the best from him long term. He is not and may never be, however, the player we were told about when he signed.
There is no reason why Rodwell cannot fill in the gaps when needed and be a part of a solid, if unspectacular, midfield three. But to justify his price tag and displace M'Vila, Cattermole or Kirchhoff with regularity, he will have to forget about satisfying the attacking billing he was given when unveiled as a Sunderland player, and focus on the tackling, heading and defending that have always been his forte.