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Talking Tactics: Sunderland’s striking paradox

Sunderland have seemingly been on the hunt for a clinical centre forward since Ross Stewart’s injury, but as Dan Harrison writes, is a goalscoring striker really a catch twenty two?

Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

It’s been well documented over the last eighteen months that Sunderland have had a number nine-shaped hole in the team following the injury suffered by Ross Stewart in the warm up against Middlesborough at the Riverside Stadium back in 2022.

Fast forward to 2024 and fans will be questioning why this issue seemingly hasn’t been addressed.

There’s no denying that strikers have notoriously commanded sky high fees (they do get paid the big bucks for a reason, after all) and that they ultimately decide games. However, in the modern game, goals are now coming from more sources than just the big man up top.

To really pick apart the striking dilemma, we need to look at how football has evolved in recent years and why ‘thoroughbred’ strikers have become a rarity in the modern game.

Liverpool v Stoke City - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Think back to the 2010’s, when the Premier League was flush with world class number nines.

From Robin van Persie and Luis Suarez to Sergio Aguero and Wayne Rooney, all of these strikers had one thing in common: they were clinical goal scorers.

During this time, the race for the golden boot was dominated by centre forwards and each of them had goal tallies into the mid-to-high twenties to boot.

Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester City - Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Photo by Rob Newell - CameraSport via Getty Images

With the subsequent emergence and development of managers such as Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola, new patterns of play began to emerge and goals began to arrive from more unlikely sources.

With the change in tactics, teams began to utilise ‘inside forwards’ far more frequently, with quick passages of play resulting in wingers finding space in behind and more often than not, a greater opportunity to score than simply relying on finishing instincts and good delivery.

As players became more technically astute, the rise of wingers truly took hold during the latter stages of the 2010’s, and the likes of Eden Hazard, Mohamed Salah and Son Heung-min become household names in the race for the golden boot.

They’d evolved from simply beating men out wide and providing deliveries to playing as inverted wingers who scored more than they assisted.

Chelsea v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

In the current Premier League season, only Erling Haaland and Ollie Watkins have more than eighteen goal contributions which include eight goals and four or more assists. Most strikers are proficient in one area or another, but never both.

Looking around the leagues, you see top teams such as Real Madrid, PSG, Arsenal and Liverpool utilising dangerous wide men more and more frequently.

During their Euro 2016 and 2018 World Cup victories, France used the hold up play of Olivier Giroud to allow Kylian Mbappé and Ousmane Dembélé to flourish by dropping deeper and creating space for his teammates to exploit.

France v Croatia - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Final Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

If you take a look at the fees being quoted and paid for strikers, it’s obvious that finding a centre forward capable of scoring at a high rate but also involving themselves in build up play can be expensive.

Teams are now opting for strikers whose main strength is to complement the inside forwards through goal contributions more than directly scoring themselves, with Gabriel Jesus and Diogo Jota two examples.

So, where does this leave Sunderland?

Following the injury to Stewart, we were forced to evolve into a side that relied on the technique of utilising inside forwards to source goals, whether that be Jack Clarke, Patrick Roberts or Amad Diallo.

We began to play without a striker and focused our attention on providing these players with the best chances to convert previously considered crossing opportunities into goals.

Reading v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images

With the addition of four new striking options in the summer, Sunderland fans would be right to judge the quite frankly disappointing lack of goal contributions from the strikers during the opening half of the campaign, but it’s also worth looking at things from a slightly different perspective.

In a competitive market, we’ve hedged our bets in recruiting strikers who have a distinct ability to link up play, make intelligent runs and should the ball find their feet, finish chances (although this is often considered an afterthought).

Without some selfless link up play from Joe Gelhardt last season, would we have scored four goals during the thriller against Hull City at the Stadium of Light, and would we have scored a magnificent team goal at Huddersfield without the touch from Ellis Simms in the build up?

Sunderland v Hull City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

I don’t think for one second that Sunderland wouldn’t benefit from an additional source of goals from the number nine position.

However, I do think it’s worth evaluating how our style of play has changed and how the recruitment team are looking for other attributes in their forwards, with goals an added bonus.

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