Chances to impress this season have been in short supply for some Sunderland youngsters, and readily available to others depending on who they are.
Take Dan Neil, for example - he’s played more minutes than most and through good and bad spells of form it has never felt like his position has been under threat. You could say the same for Anthony Patterson too, who has been unchallenged for his #1 spot in the team.
Then there are others - namely Jewison Bennette - who have had to be more patient, for a number of reasons. In Bennette’s case I’m sure that his time will come eventually, and all he can do is to continue working hard in the hope one day he’ll impress the manager and get the opportunity to start a run of games in which he can showcase his abilities.
There’s been a mixed bag with some of the others. Trai Hume only got a chance when there was no other option but to play him, and now he’s one of the first names on the teamsheet. Edouard Michut’s opportunity arose through the bad fortune of Corry Evans, but he’s thrived since being given a run in the side. Amad barely featured until Tony Mowbray got his feet under the table fully and has arguably been our player of the season since.
For Abdoullah Ba, however, it feels as though his time has finally come.
Admittedly, his performance in the home game against Cardiff highlighted some of the issues that he needed to iron out over the subsequent months, but like Hume and Michut before him it was an injury to another player which has afforded him his chance.
Amad’s issues couldn’t have come at a better time for Ba and he’s slotted into the side seamlessly, although playing a slightly different role for Tony Mowbray.
At Norwich he was further forward and against Luton he was sat at the tip of the midfield, but in the main he’s been used as a number ten. The result? One goal and one assist, with some silky passing and dribbling mixed in. He hasn’t been perfect, but there have been glimpses of his true ability and, perhaps more meaningfully, he’s contributed.
This prompted France to call him up to their U20s side, and he capped a fine performance for Les Bleus with a thumping goal against the United States on Wednesday afternoon, partnering his Sunderland teammate Edouard Michut in the French midfield.
I guess you could say it’s been a good couple of weeks for the man signed from Le Havre.
The thing troubling me now is whether or not Tony Mowbray will opt to capitalise on this.
I heard him remark in a recent press conference that if Ba keeps contributing, he will keep starting games, and that all feeds into a very frank and honest discussion that I suppose we all need to have about what is the best way to tackle the final games of the season.
We’re not going to get relegated, but reaching the playoffs would be a stretch too, so does Tony Mowbray need to start prioritising the game-time of players who are going to be an integral part of his first-team plans next season?
I’d suggest so, and that Ba needs to keep being spotlighted between now and the final game of the season in May.
The big debate is over how we handle the two loanees and how this all factors in.
Amad is undoubtedly one of our best players, but is there a chance we could see his game-time limited in favour of Ba? It would probably be harsh given how much he’s contributed, and the fact that we have no proper centre forward available, but there’s an argument there that I’d be prepared to listen to.
I guess the more pressing issue is Joe Gelhardt. Whilst he’s also a loanee, unlike Amad he’s been absolutely useless to us since arriving and has had far more game-time than his performances have perhaps warranted. I’m not here to debate whether that’s been the right approach or not, though, because all I’m interested in is the here and now, and what happens over the next couple of months.
As far as I am concerned (and I imagine most other folk), the development of Abdoullah Ba and not Joe Gelhardt is more important right now to Sunderland AFC.
We have to find a way of working Ba into the team, and Gelhardt out of it.
To me it seems fairly simple, and bringing Amad back into the fold and going with a fluid front four makes a lot of sense. It might not work in every situation, but I can bet it will work a hell of a lot better than trying to play balls up to Gelhardt with his back to goal on the halfway line.
Next season neither Amad or Gelhardt will be at Sunderland, but Ba will.
Therefore, it should be less about fitting the team around them and instead fitting them around the likes of Ba, Bennette, Lihadji, Ekwah, Clarke, Roberts and whoever else is likely to be a firm part of the plans next season in the Championship.
We’ve got eight games left and I’d love for a fit and motivated Abdoullah Ba to be given a proper chance to shine in all of them. He can only benefit as a result which, in turn, benefits us.
He’s the present and the future, and given the fact he’s quite clearly taking his chance to impress I think Tony Mowbray would be absolutely foolish not to capitalise on it.