Jermain Defoe would have been forgiven for thinking that he was playing for Sunderland at Wembley on Sunday, such was his lack of involvement in the first 20 minutes of England’s 2-0 win over Lithuania.
The 34-year-old, recalled to the national team for the first time since November 2013, touched the ball just 15 times in 59 minutes. But he was in the right place at the right time, as he has been so often for Sunderland this season, to convert Raheem Sterling’s pull-back and give England a 21st minute lead.
The finish was classic Defoe; pulling away from his defender before side-footing past a helpless goalkeeper. It was a timely reminder of the quality that he possesses, something that Sunderland haven’t seen a great deal of in recent performances.
With just 10 games remaining in the fight against relegation, Sunderland desperately need to see that quality, and quickly. Defoe’s triumphant return to the England set-up will see him return to Wearisde in great spirits, and it’s important that Sunderland, and David Moyes, look to capitalise on that.
Defoe has often cut a lonely and frustrated figure playing in Moyes’ side. He’s taken just four shots in his last four Premier League games. It’s been abundantly clear that Defoe represents the club’s biggest hope for a long time now, so this lack of involvement due to the side’s inability to link with him is simply not good enough.
Sunderland created some great opportunities against Burnley last time out. Unfortunately none of them fell to Defoe; you’d imagine that he’d have converted some of the efforts that the likes of Adnan Januzaj and Billy Jones wasted. Instead, the 14-goal man often came deep to look for the ball, such was the lack of service that he was provided with. In fact, Defoe provided the cross for Januzaj’s second half effort. That needs to be reversed.
The Black Cats have failed to score in six of their last seven games. Saturday’s opponents Watford have won just three of their last 14, including no wins in their last four and only two wins from their last seven home games. They’re still cautiously looking over their shoulder on 31 points, and with 48 goals conceded, their defence is one of the league’s leakiest. Sunderland beat Watford earlier in the season – thanks to a Patrick van Aanholt goal created by Defoe – and a win on Saturday is certainly not out of the question, despite their recent struggles.
Defoe will invariably be crucial if Sunderland are to achieve this – both on Saturday and beyond. But David Moyes will need to change things to give Defoe, and the team, a chance.
First and foremost, the cautious approach to games needs to stop. The club is going down without much of a fight as things stand - there's nothing to lose. There's nothing wrong with looking to be hard to beat - it's served the likes of West Brom well, for example. But Sunderland have failed to be hard to beat, and this mentality has come at the detriment of attacking ambition.
A return to 3-5-1-1, which brought positive results against Spurs and Crystal Palace, represents one of the most obvious options. Not only would it retain some defensive solidity with three centre-backs and midfielders, but it would allow the full back pairing to push forwards and support in attack. Defoe seemed to have formed a strong understanding with van Aanholt, and while Bryan Oviedo appears to be less dynamic than the Dutchman, he showed that he is more than capable of creating chances while at Everton and in the win over Palace.
Perhaps more importantly, it would see the return of an attacking midfielder, or number 10, to Sunderland's line-up. While inconsistent and incredibly frustrating on occasion, Adnan Januzaj has proven to be the side's chief creative threat. Playing centrally would allow him more space to roam, get on the ball and link with Defoe, as he did to devastating effect at Selhurst Park.
The alternative is to switch to 4-2-3-1. It's been obvious for a long time that 4-3-3 without the hold-up play of Victor Anichebe just does not work. By switching to 4-2-3-1, Sunderland would be able to commit more men in attack, while retaining some form of defensive solidity when the opposition is in possession of the ball.
Again, the main benefit would see the inclusion of a number 10 to link the play between attack and midfield. At present, the Sunderland midfield severely lacks creativity and attacking threat. In this set-up, Didier Ndong and Darron Gibson - both decent in terms of ball retention and winning it back - would sit, providing cover for the defence and allowing the advanced players more freedom to attack and support Defoe. The inclusion of a number 10 would also likely see the end of the hopeless punts forward to the 5ft 7 striker, with more options available to pass to in advanced areas.
A switch to 4-2-3-1 would likely see the return of Wahbi Khazri to the starting line-up. The Tunisian has endured a tough time this season and seems to have a strange relationship with the manager (despite his protestations), who has offered a somewhat contradictory explanation for his repeated absence from the side:
I told Wahbi right from the start that I needed him to retain possession.
He is the type of player that I need to either score me a goal or make me a goal.
Moyes' expectations of Khazri seem rather idealistic, and he needs to accept that he will inevitably concede possession in the hunt for a killer pass or deadlock-breaking goal. Khazri has admittedly been poor in his performances this season, but an average of just over 30 minutes per game means that he has been afford little opportunity to find any semblance of rhythm and show quality.
Victor Anichebe represents a wildcard in Sunderland's fight against relegation. Reports suggest that the Nigerian is close to a return to first team action, with an outside chance of featuring on Saturday, which would provide a huge boost. Anichebe's presence on either side of a 4-3-3 provided great success earlier this season - four of Sunderland's five league wins came with him in the side. His ability to hold the ball not only helped the side to advance up the pitch, but, importantly, created space in which Defoe could thrive. Alternatively, Moyes could choose to go gung-ho and partner the big man with Defoe up top.
Rushing Anichebe back represents a considerable risk for a player with an injury history like his. But Sunderland are in a position where taking risks is necessary, and in this instance, it's one that could provide great rewards.
The biggest question that needs to be asked of David Moyes is whether he is prepared to take the risks to provide support for Jermain Defoe. Defoe did nothing but score against Lithuania, and Sunderland need to take advantage of that rare quality to have any hope of survival. It's do or die.