Will Grigg is one of the more peculiar cases of a Sunderland striker not quite getting things done. As it stands he’s set to join a long line of strikers who were good before (and usually after) a disastrous period in red and white.
All may not be as it seems though, even when you cut through the usual platitudes - notions of him bottling it, not trying or just being generally “crap”. There’s a much more obvious, more interesting reasoning potentially behind why Grigg has struggled on Wearside, but also a way that highlights an almost too obvious solution.
Before we delve into the dry, tactical aspect of Grigg’s play it’s first worth mentioning his career prior to Sunderland. In Grigg’s ten seasons in League One he has only ever broken the 20 goal barrier twice and in a deeper dive, has only broken the 10 goal barrier an additionional two times in his career.
Two additional stints in the Championship saw him return 5 and 4 goals respectively. Even across his career, in 351 games for both club and country, Will Grigg has scored 111 times; a return of 1 goal every 3.16 games - hardly the form of a 20 goal a season striker, then.
In that instance it’s fair to say that from the off, Grigg has been judged against an unrealistic expectation. League One strikers are dogged by inconsistency. That is of course their nature, and Grigg is seemingly no different.
How to remedy this is another question entirely, but a look at just this season alone (which is fair, when Grigg joined it was clear he was playing through injury for the most part) can tell you a lot about why things aren’t working for him.
Upon his arrival one of the first questions asked of Parkinson was how he planned to get Grigg firing again. He’s been asked since too, but his response remains consistent - more service. Thats great, but simply “more service” isn’t the entire answer and is actually quite wide of the mark in regards to this particular series of problems, despite at its core being the correct sentiment.
Using a broad range of stats from this season, it’s clear that “more” service isn’t the key, it’s actually more of the *right* kind of service that will make the difference.
Overall Grigg’s passing percentages for the season are in or above the 70% mark. This indicates Grigg is comfortable to get the ball into his feet, pass then move. Pretty basic for any professional striker, then. The intriguing part came to my attention when Parkinson alluded to providing Grigg with more crosses into the area.
Now on the surface this isn’t a bad idea, until you remember Grigg isn’t even 6ft and the average height of a League One centre back means they can screw in a light bulb without having to stand on a chair. Statistics back this as a flawed notion too, with Grigg only winning an average of 22% of his aerial challenges - hardly breaking news.
What further makes this a flawed concept is the insistence on long ball football under Parkinson and playing Grigg as a lone striker - for example, against Burton 1 in 5 passes were long balls (102 to be precise). Assuming every one of those balls were aimed at Grigg and accurate enough to get to him, even then he’d only be expecting to win (that’s not win and control/win and find a team mate by the way) a meagre 22 of those balls.
To simplify that point - he doesn’t stand much of a chance.
So what does this all lead to, and why does it mean we need to start playing differently to Grigg, rather than stick it out until Wyke is fit again?
Well, the simple analysis is the most damning in this case. Due to Grigg not being competitive high up the pitch due to the nature of service, his natural instinct (as is any footballers) is to drop deep to get on the ball. This in my opinion is a cardinal sin considering how we play. Dropping deep means a vast amount of Grigg’s initial interaction with the ball comes far too deep for a lone striker.
Against Burton a staggering 53% of Grigg’s actions came in the middle third of the pitch, in comparison Burton’s striker Akins having only 34% of his actions happen around the same area. It also helps not dragging him back for corners, too.
By having to drop so deep, so often - especially without support - it means Grigg has to do all the legwork himself. That means dropping deep, winning the ball, laying it off before making what is then a later run into the area - if he can get there at all.
It’s a gift for defenders - a decent head start against someone who isn’t too quick. To ask someone do all of that, then make it into the area in time for a ball into the box is pretty unreasonable unless you’re Usain Bolt.
The result? Grigg’s actions in the final third accounted for less than half of his time in the game (42%) and resulted in a pathetic 2 actions inside the opposition area, neither were a shot. In contrast, Liam Boyce - another thorn in our side - also had 42% of his time in our final third. He enjoyed 8 interactions in our penalty area, including 3 shots and 1 goal.
It’s therefore not unreasonable or unrealistic to highlight that Grigg simply cannot function on the service afforded to him, when a team in the bottom third of the league can provide a winger with service far superior to what our side offered Grigg.
Whilst some may invariably remain frustrated by Grigg, the reality is he could increase his amount running exponentially and very little would change.
The burning issue isn’t simply Grigg doing more, nor is it him being more clinical. Despite him missing chances (League One strikers generally do that by the way), it’s the lack of chances that make for a real concern. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that strikers in League One aren’t going to have a high conversion rate so chance creation is at an absolute premium, something we clearly aren’t doing.
What can Grigg do himself, then?
Well, we can say he could be more clinical in and around the area, but even then that’s asking him to become Maja-esque in his conversion rate. Sadly Grigg can’t grow an extra 8 inches overnight, nor can he find an extra 2 or 3 yards of pace. For Grigg to address his own issues would be to address mainly things with his own physicality he simply cannot change.
Sure, I’ve heard people ask him to run a bit more which isn’t entirely unfair, but given the amount and quality of service he receives it must be mentally and therefore physically draining playing as a lone striker right now - they say the first few yards are in your head.
Alternatively, Grigg can go against his own logic and remain higher up the pitch but even that wouldn’t be without detriment. It’s clear with our current style Grigg dropping deep is engaging other players in the side - namely our wingers and allowing them into the game on the rare occasion he wins a header or gets the ball into an area where he can compete properly for it, moving higher up would negate any positive impact he has in that area - essentially leaving a gaping hole where a midfielder or at least a Number 10 would occupy.
In much more concise terms, if Grigg was to act more selfishly and remain higher up the pitch, that would probably be as detrimental as him dropping deep. We’d be swapping one problem for another.
To me - and the stats this season do suggest so too - Grigg has become a convenient scapegoat for some more serious and lingering issues within this side.
It’s worth noting too that in the Tranmere game Sunderland played far fewer long balls, and this allowed Grigg to get further up the pitch - resulting in arguably his best performance in a Sunderland shirt, registering 1 goal and 1 assist.
That is why I’m concerned by both Parkinson’s comments and Parkinson himself. As an experienced gaffer he should be able to realise that Grigg can’t and won’t feed off long balls, he won’t run the channels and he won’t meet many crosses - the fact Parkinson has regularly alluded to simply getting the ball into him more concerns me the most.
Grigg is the typical ”fox in the box” - he needs chances in the 18-yard area, and certainly more than 1 or 2 a game if we want to see any resemblance of a return from him.
I’m sure there will be many who disagree with this, some who will say he can and should do more, some who think he should be banging them in one every other game and so on, but that isn’t the reality. If you’re asked to do a job, you need the tools and the means to complete that task - especially when you’re part of a team.
So whilst many will level criticism at Grigg just remember, he isn’t getting the tools required to do his job. Until that’s addressed, nothing will change.