While Jermain Defoe remains Sunderland’s greatest hope in the increasingly difficult fight for survival, the news that Victor Anichebe is nearing a first-team return will provide a timely boost as the fight for Premier League survival reaches its critical stage.
The Nigerian has missed the last six games since suffering a knee injury at West Brom in January, but if the manager can keep him fit and back to his formidable best, then Anichebe’s presence on the field is likely to add to the faint hope of survival that Sunderland still cling onto.
There’s no doubting the impact that the big man made on the side during his pre-injury run. With his signing branded by many as a waste of time and money, followed by ‘his’ infamous “can you tweet something like” message, expectations were low. But he was colossal on the pitch, featuring in four of the club’s five wins this season, and was incredibly influential in that small run of success.
Two goals against Hull, a goal and a winning a penalty against Bournemouth, and the bullying of Leicester and Watford saw Anichebe establish himself as a key player for the side. Christian Kabasele, of Saturday’s opponents Watford, told Belgian media that he “struggled the most against Anichebe,” such was his impact.
As history would suggest, however, injury inevitably struck. Having limped off in December’s 4-1 defeat at Burnley, Anichebe, arguably unnecessarily, was rushed back into the side against old employers West Brom and promptly injured himself once again.
Relying on him to improve the team and likely rushing him back - against Watford on Saturday, preferably - represents a major risk. But right now Sunderland are in a position where they need to take risks; where they need to do anything that it takes to try to gain a positive result. Victor Anichebe can undoubtedly help the team to achieve just that.
Truthfully, Sunderland have only ever looked like they had a plan when Anichebe was playing. It was one dimensional, admittedly, but effective, and it’s one more plan than we’ve seen in his absence. The fact that the ball continues to be knocked long towards 5’ 7” Jermain Defoe suggests that David Moyes has not really considered another approach in the absence of Anichebe - and if he has we’ve yet to see it come to fruition.
In the former Everton man, however, Sunderland have a player that can make use of those long balls; a player who can control the ball aerially and take advantage of Jordan Pickford’s accurate distribution as well as the constant stream of punts from the back-line. He leads the team, alongside Billy Jones, with an average of 3.6 aerial duels won per game. On average, he wins an aerial duel every 17.8 minutes and owns the best aerial duels won per 90 minutes ratio. Victor Anichebe simply brings a winning mentality to the team, he is an outlet that inspires those around him.
He helped the team to get up the pitch, and relieved pressure on the defence in return. His presence in attack drew defenders away from their areas - with teams often resorting to double-teaming him - and pushed full backs back towards their own goal. Simply occupying defenders helped to create space for the likes of Duncan Watmore on the opposite wing, and more importantly, Jermain Defoe in and around the penalty area. Sunderland’s main man has been starved of service over the last four games, and the team should really be doing everything in their power to supply him. Anichebe can certainly provide that, either linking inside from the wing or alongside him in a two-man strike force resembling Defoe and Peter Crouch’s little and large partnership of years gone by.
It’s also important to appreciate Duncan Watmore’s influence on the team during this period. The young forward consistently made runs inside from the right wing to create space for other forwards, whilst also attempting to create and finish. Adnan Januzaj is not necessarily the man to do that in his absence, but Fabio Borini, while lacking Watmore’s raw pace, is likely to be able to. It seems like an ideal set-up on paper, with Januzaj moving inside to a number 10 position where he can look to link with Defoe as the side’s chief creator.
Providing that Moyes feels adventurous, that is.
Having made just 12 appearances all season, it seems optimistic to expect Anichebe to play in all 10 remaining games. But Sunderland need to get anything that they can from him, particularly in games against the likes of Middlesbrough and Hull. It’s a do or die situation. Relying on such an injury-prone player to make an impact seems symptomatic of the club’s struggles and the state that it finds itself in, but that’s the reality we face.
This is not to suggest that Victor Anichebe will miraculously save Sunderland’s season - we all realise how difficult survival will be even with Anichebe in the squad. However, Big Vic has shown that he can make a big impact on this side and will undoubtedly bring some much-needed quality and presence to the run-in. Only time will tell whether that will be enough, but one thing is for certain: we stand a much better chance of survival with Anichebe in the starting line-up.