The story of Jack Rodwell, like that of Sunderland, is reaching a critical stage. Once hailed as a wonderkid of not just English, but European football, Rodwell now finds himself at a career crossroads.
Just two months away from turning 26, Rodwell is yet to make his mark at Sunderland following a £10M move from Manchester City in 2014. Likely to be one of the club’s highest earners, Rodwell faces the task of convincing the top brass that he has a future on Wearside, particularly in the context of recent cost-cutting measures implemented by Martin Bain.
A succession of niggling injuries, a loss of form, and probably even a loss of confidence, means that Sunderland fans are yet to see the best of Rodwell. And quite frankly, it's hard to say what the 'best' of Jack Rodwell actually is. A £12M move to City killed any kind of momentum he had built at Everton, where he broke through as a 16-year-old, and the rejuvenation that his move to Sunderland was meant to provide just hasn't happened.
And that's why Rodwell's career is now at a critical stage. The next few years, in theory, should be his prime years - the years where he finds consistency in his game and shows why he was highly regarded as a youngster. The years where he battles his way back into the England setup, with Sunderland or otherwise. Or, he can fade into obscurity like David Bentley. The way football works means that Rodwell will always have his suitors - a newly promoted team would snap him up at a moment's notice, for example - but would he be content to float around the lower reaches of football, rather than fulfill the potential that saw him linked with Manchester United and Real Madrid at 18?
If his last two performances are anything to go by, then maybe the penny has finally dropped with Rodwell. The player himself believes he is getting closer to finding his best form, telling The Chronicle:
It's just a case of being physically right and then mentally I know I can produce my best stuff. But it's not if, it's when. I feel the best I have done in four or five years.
Despite only just returning from injury, Rodwell impressed in back-to-back games against Liverpool and Burnley. At times, perhaps understandably so given his injury history, he has looked reluctant to get involved in the midfield - probably fearing another lay-off. But these games saw a different Jack Rodwell take to the field. He was combative, energetic, and generally made himself visible on the pitch. He's been invisible too many times during his time at Sunderland, but showed great desire and commitment in these outings. Booked after just 15 minutes against Liverpool, Rodwell showed great discipline to avoid a second while remaining combative and pressing his opponents. In fact, he registered an impressive three tackles, two interceptions and one clearance in that match. He certainly couldn't be accused of hiding.
But more importantly, Rodwell showed great desire to get forward and support Sunderland's often ostracised attack. Sunderland attempt just under 10 shots per game, the third lowest total in the league - it's no surprise that they're one of the lowest scorers in the top flight. Only Paddy McNair has scored a goal from the centre of Sunderland's midfield this season, but Rodwell seemed intent on changing that. He looked hungry for goals against Liverpool and forced Simon Mignolet into making some impressive saves. Against Burnley, he attempted half of Sunderland's efforts, again coming close to making the breakthrough.
Sunderland's midfield, often placid, has been crying out for someone to break into the final third and contribute creatively - a Frank Lampard-lite if you will. And truthfully, Rodwell has often been the one who has looked to get forward during his time on Wearside. Not to huge effect though, I should add, but that’s beside the point. The fact that Rodwell shows desire to get forward helps the team immeasurably. We saw how Sunderland put more pressure on the Liverpool defence, and Rodwell's presence in advanced areas certainly contributed to that.
Back in 2010, when Rodwell was just 19, David Moyes stated that "with time and experience, he will eventually slide back [into a holding midfield position]." At the time, he stressed that an attacking midfield role was best suited to the youngster:
Jack's best position will be as a midfield player, but probably running forward, joining up, getting in the box and supporting in behind.
As predicted, Rodwell has gradually shifted back into a holding position. But maybe Moyes was correct with his initial assessment. Rodwell has been ineffective in a deeper position, and truthfully, Didier Ndong, and Lee Cattermole and Jan Kirchhoff (when fit), are much better suited to that role. Rodwell is tall, rangy and possesses a powerful strike - getting forward to support Jermain Defoe seems more suited to his attributes. It's certainly something to consider when more options become available.
The history, and relationship between the two, arguably holds the key to reviving his career. Evidently, there's a great deal of respect and trust between them. Moyes gave the then 16-year-old Rodwell his Everton debut and often spoke of needing to "nurture him" and "bring[ing] him along the right way." Moyes even tipped him for the very top, adding: "He has undoubted talent, great ability and there is a long future for Jack Rodwell."
Rodwell himself believes that Moyes can get the best out of him, telling The Chronicle:
He knows my game more than anyone. As soon as I heard it was Moyes coming in I knew we’d be fine, I was made up.
The manager has responded well to Rodwell's last two games, telling the media that he thinks Rodwell "is getting it [his quality] back," and adding that “Jack is one who can get himself at that level more often. He can pass it, he has the ability to get on the ball and take it."
But he also raised an interesting point, admitting:
He just needs to show a bit more toughness and add some robustness to his game at times.
It's an interesting point because Moyes said almost the exact same thing in May 2009:
Sometimes in the Premier League you have to show you can do the dirty work and the hard work before you can show your other qualities.
And Rodwell is arguably yet to show that he can do that in red and white. He has largely been peripheral and unable, or unwilling, to impose himself on games, likely as a result of concerns following numerous injuries. But the last two performances have been encouraging, both in that respect and his attacking play, and Moyes clearly believes in him. Either way, Sunderland are going to need him with the squad down to the bare bones for the next month or so.
"We are short of midfielders and really short on those who can play in central midfield," the manager admitted. "We’re needing someone to take a bit of responsibility in the middle of the pitch for us and Jack’s just beginning to do a bit of that."
Sunderland have never known the 'real' Jack Rodwell, and frankly, nobody really has since he departed Goodison Park in 2012. Rodwell has experienced the highs of scoring on his European debut and playing for England, and now is the perfect time for him to show just who the 'real' Jack Rodwell is. Jack Rodwell needs to do it for Sunderland, but he also needs to do it for himself.
The upcoming fixtures against Stoke, Burnley and West Brom will go a long way to providing an answer. Will this be the rebirth of Jack Rodwell, or just another false dawn in his Sunderland career?