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Sunderland v AS Roma - Pre-Season Friendly

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Opinion: “Leon Dajaku is Sunderland's enigma!”

The German winger has shown some of his best and most frustrating qualities during pre-season so far, leaving Alex Neil with something of a problem to solve.

Photo by Gualter Fatia/Getty Images

During Sunderland’s friendly against Roma in Portugal last week, Leon Dajaku found himself in a position in which all attackers dream of being: through on goal, with a teammate flanking him, and a great chance to put us 1-0 up.

At that point, had his mind been clear, he would’ve realised that Jack Clarke had the easiest of tap-ins if the ball had been squared to him. Instead, Dajaku chose to go for glory himself, only to make a mess of it and for the chance to pass us by.

The frustrated reaction to the miss on social media was predictable, and something we have seen on a regular basis since he first arrived at the club.

Sunderland v AS Roma: Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Carlos Rodrigues/Getty Images

Against Dundee on Saturday, the German was given another starting berth, but the story was all too familiar: flashes of promise amid a performance that was generally erratic and borderline out of control at times, as he tried much too hard to make things happen. To his credit, though, his pass to Dennis Cirkin was key to our first goal, so it wasn’t an entirely wasted afternoon.

Whenever the phrase ‘football intelligence’ is used, his is a classic example of it being severely lacking. Until fairly recently, Lynden Gooch was being hindered by a similar issue, but to his credit, the American finally seems to have cottoned on to how he can affect games successfully, and has become a better player as a result.

The big question, therefore, is that if Dajaku was struggling to affect games in League One, and during the less pressurised environment of pre-season, what chance does he have of making an impact in the Championship?

‘Loan him out’, was a familiar refrain over the past week, and it is an argument not entirely without merit, but on the other hand, I think some balance is needed.

One thing that I do believe is that Dajaku genuinely wants to make a success of his Sunderland career, and as we saw last season, he has made a handful of noteworthy contributions to the team, with well-taken goals against Crewe Alexandra and Oxford United.

Crewe Alexandra v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

He is a young man making his way at a club in which the environment is completely different to what he knew previously, and the adjustment that he went through (and is perhaps still going through) cannot be easy.

He is clearly desperate to impress his coaches, teammates, and the fans, but the glaring issue is that his enthusiasm and desire to showcase his talent is being channelled in the wrong way. For the most part, there is a rashness to his play where there needs to be composure, and at times, he looks all at sea.

The upshot of all this is that Alex Neil is faced with a conundrum - not necessarily an overly problematic one, but a dilemma that needs to be resolved nevertheless.

The situation has never been straightforward, largely because he only ended up moving to Sunderland permanently after a clause in his loan deal was triggered.

In that sense, if we are to uphold the principle that no manager should have to field a player over whose arrival he had no control, Neil would be well within his rights to overlook Dajaku, or to loan him to another club for 2022/2023.

Thus far, Neil could certainly not be accused of not offering him chances to impress, but how does he deal with the issue of a player who effectively stayed at the club by default and is coming from even further behind in an attempt to stake a claim for a first-team berth?

There is a talented player in there, without a doubt (albeit possibly as a second striker as opposed to being utilised in a wider position), but the big question is whether Neil has the time and the patience to work with him on the training ground and attempt to hone the raw materials into something much more rounded.

This season will be challenging enough, with every player needing to be in sync with his teammates, but at the moment, Dajaku is still some way off.

Many of the attributes are there- pace, agility, an eye for goal, but with plentiful depth in wide attacking positions with the likes of Jack Clarke, Patrick Roberts and Jack Diamond, plus the prospect of more incomings, I do worry that Dajaku may find himself pushed out to the fringes once again.

Sunderland v Sheffield Wednesday - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Semi Final 1st Leg Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

In many ways, the decision to bring Dajaku to Wearside was a gamble, an outside-of-the-box move that hinted at Kristjaan Speakman’s keenness to cast the net wider and look to the continent for young, talented players. It was a noble and initially promising idea, but has not worked as well it might have done.

While his German countryman Thorben Hoffmann’s English odyssey was ultimately curtailed, Dajaku has made the switch, and now finds himself in something of a state of flux- in the team but not making a particularly strong case for continued selection.

I genuinely don’t believe that Dajaku is a lost cause in red and white, but ultimately, only the player himself can take the necessary steps forward and apply himself on a daily basis as he tries to prove his worth. The chance he has been presented with is a golden one, and you can only hope that he doesn’t allow it to pass him by.

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