Just over a month ago, I wrote an article in which expressed a belief that Patrick Roberts remained Sunderland’s first choice on the right wing, but that Abdoullah Ba was showing some promising signs of being a capable understudy and maybe even being worthy of a run of games himself.
Since then, Ba has turned in some promising and increasingly mature displays (scoring two goals along the way) and Roberts’ role in the team has fluctuated, much to the chagrin of those who see his enduring class as being too vital to overlook.
However, to briefly touch on the subject of competition, that’s no bad thing, and the team will benefit in the longer term as Roberts and Ba hopefully continue to push each other and give Tony Mowbray some difficult decisions to make when we resume our league campaign at Stoke a week on Saturday.
However, in the meantime, the question is glaring: is Roberts’ lack of effectiveness in front of goal becoming an issue that’s too important to ignore?
Last Saturday’s game against Middlesbrough, as bruising as it was by 4:50pm and in which the former Manchester City prospect was involved from the start, might well have unfolded somewhat differently.
Yes, Dan Neil’s red card was pivotal, but there was another key moment in the first half that could’ve been significant when Roberts gathered possession, drove forward, jinked past several Middlesbrough players and went for goal, only to be denied by a smart save from Seny Dieng.
From my vantage point in the North West Corner, there was a brief and glorious moment when it looked as though Niall Huggins’ goal against Watford had been miraculously duplicated, but my heart promptly sunk as the ball rolled to safety after flicking off Dieng’s boot, and we all know how things panned out from that point on.
Before I go any further and to avoid any accusations of peddling an agenda, I want to clarify that I’ve always been a huge fan of Roberts, long before he made the switch from Troyes to ignite our League One promotion bid.
During his spell at Celtic under Brendan Rodgers, his skill and creativity stood out a mile, and even though he followed a meandering path marked by several loan spells before arriving on Wearside in January 2022, his signing represented a coup and he’s repaid that faith with some significant contributions.
On the other hand, there’s no doubt that for all of his trickery, big game mentality and composure on the ball, goals are a glaring omission from his game. He’s no smoke-and-mirrors showboater; he’s a brilliant player who often just lacks something when it comes to an end product.
If those surging runs and ability to change direction on a sixpence were complimented by the finishes to match, we’d effectively have two versions of Jack Clarke in the team- quite a prospect, without a doubt.
One popular narrative is that Roberts isn’t quite as comfortable in the team without the brilliance of Amad by his side, and that his effectiveness has been blunted as a result, but I’m not sure I buy that, personally.
One would assume that without the Manchester United attacker riding shotgun for him, Roberts would be determined to be seize the opportunity to become one of our foremost attacking weapons.
Another point to consider is that most people- Roberts included- would’ve known that the chances of bringing the Ivorian magician back to Sunderland last summer were slim, and we just had to move on and learn to cope without him.
Another theory is that after Southampton were seemingly keen to sign him during the final days of the transfer window and with his Sunderland contractual situation somewhat up in the air, Roberts could be unsettled and his focus might be elsewhere.
Personally, I’d like to see him rewarded with a new deal- not least because he’s easily Premier League quality, is blessed with the confidence to try things even if they don’t always come off, and seems to have found a footballing home at the Stadium of Light after a nomadic career.
That's a question that'll doubtless be answered on another day, but for now, the objective is clear.
There’s no doubt that sharing the goalscoring duties around the team is a priority right now, and as devastating as he is, we can’t solely rely on pieces of magic from Clarke to win us games.
With Hemir and Mason Burstow yet to hit their straps, Nazariy Rusyn still settling in and Eliezer Mayenda yet to kick a ball in anger, the likes of Roberts might well be expected to chip in wherever possible over the coming months, and not unreasonably so.
Mowbray rates him very highly and has often raved about him in the media, the fans adore him, and if he can sharpen up in front of goal, it’ll ease the pressure on his rookie teammates and go a long way to ensuring that our top six push is maintained as the season unfolds.