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The elusive proven goalscorer

“Whether you are #Bealein or #Bealeout, the early signs are that he is prepared to give the strikers we already possess more of an opportunity than his Revel-munching predecessor,” writes Mike Stubbs.

Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The January transfer window has closed, and despite links to Bournemouth’s Kieffer Moore, Sunderland have finished the transfer window with fewer strikers than they had at the start of it.

Eliezer Mayenda has hitched a lift with Nectarios Triantis as the Australian links up with his former boss, Nick Montgomery, at Hibernian. Spending the rest of this season in Edinburgh will hopefully provide both players with the first-team experience that they were unlikely to garner if they had remained with us. Despite being a fixture on the bench for most of the season so far, Triantis enjoyed little in the way of game time, and Mayenda’s recent performances for the U21s have shown that the time is probably right for him to make the step up, even if that is elsewhere for now.

That leaves loanee Mason Burstow, Nazariy Rusyn, and the enigmatic Hemir as the striking options that Michael Beale will have at his disposal for the rest of the season.

Predictably, the non-arrival of a ‘proven goalscorer’ has resulted in the sort of social media meltdown in some quarters that has accompanied the closing of previous transfer windows. The unwillingness to match Ipswich in meeting a large proportion of Moore’s wages will undoubtedly be used as evidence by some of a continuing lack of ambition from KLD.

AFC Bournemouth Training Session Photo by Robin Jones - AFC Bournemouth/AFC Bournemouth via Getty Images

For me, I am not convinced that the addition of a ‘proven goalscorer’ would have made a great deal of difference in Sunderland’s current situation. We could have outbid Ipswich and signed Moore from Bournemouth, we could have beaten Rotherham and re-signed one of our previous ‘proven goalscorers’ in Charlie Wyke, or we could have brought in another data-driven unknown quantity from abroad.

Whatever circumstances a ‘proven goalscorer’ arrived under, to succeed, they would have required the team to set up opportunities for them to hit the back of the net. When Burstow and Rusyn have been given game time so far this season, it is difficult to remember any obvious chances that they have spurned. I can’t recall leaving a game thinking ‘all we needed was a clinical striker and we’d have won that’.

As the Mowbray era petered out, a team that had produced sublime counter-attacking football in the previous campaign and had destroyed teams like Southampton earlier this season was finding it increasingly difficult to translate being dominant in possession into goals and victories. You could have had Rowell, Gabbiadini, Phillips, or Defoe up front, and they would have struggled. Opponents had worked out how to stifle our build-up play, which had become predictable and ponderous.

Sunderland v Stoke City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The morning of the Stoke game culminated in the most difficult of circumstances. Michael Beale’s clumsy comments had failed to endear him to a fanbase, some of whom had already written him off before he arrived. Together with the brief, terse club communication about Alex Pritchard making himself unavailable for the game, it served to create the ingredients for a typically inevitable SAFC implosion - Beale’s team selection would verge on the bizarre, the Lads would join Pritchard in spirit and not turn up, and Lynden Gooch would cap the day off with a goal against the club to which he had been the most loyal of servants.

Thankfully none of that transpired. Instead, it was Stoke who joined Pritchard in not turning up. Abdoullah Ba was a revelation, Mason Burstow led the line impressively, standing up manfully to a physical Stoke defence with his back to goal and opened his account with a poacher’s finish. Aside from an unfortunate own goal, Sunderland largely controlled the game after they opened the scoring.

There were subtle changes in tactics from Beale. The presence of Burstow up front, with Jobe often playing off him, allowed Sunderland to switch from tightly controlled possession to stretching Stoke with longer, more ambitious passes, directly to Burstow, or creating space for Clarke and Ba to exploit. That variation put doubts into the minds of the opposition.

Dan Neil occupied the deeper-lying midfield position, which allowed the infectiously enthusiastic Pierre Ekwah to forage forward, performing with far more intent than we have seen since his return from injury.

That willingness to play more direct forward passes should create opportunities for both Burstow and Rusyn. The work rate of the Ukrainian is obvious but his ability to make runs into space has, so far, been criminally underexploited.

Whether you are #Bealein or #Bealeout, the early signs are that he is prepared to give the strikers we already possess more of an opportunity than his Revel-munching predecessor.

Without a change in tactics, the acquisition of a ‘proven goalscorer’ would have been a pointless exercise. With a change of tactics, there may already be players in the squad who will become the elusive ‘proven goalscorer’.


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