Midway through the first half against Middlesbrough on Sunday, as we tried to capitalise on what had been a fairly promising display, Luke O’Nien picked up the ball and carried it deep into the opposition half, trying to get us onto the front foot and perhaps create an opening for one of his teammates.
As he did so, Mason Burstow, who retained his place in the team after opening the scoring against Stoke City the week before, should’ve been alert and ready to make a darting run and potentially receive the ball, but as O’Nien advanced, the Chelsea loanee was much too static and any chance of an opening disappeared.
It was a moment that typified the young striker’s harrowing experience at the Riverside, as he looked completely lost and either unwilling or simply incapable of making the kind of runs that were needed and therefore giving the home defence something to really think about.
Compare this with the impact made by Nazariy Rusyn when he entered the fray in the second half, and the contrast was stark, as the Ukrainian got right into the faces of the home defence, chased any loose balls that he felt he might’ve been able to capitalise on, and was eventually rewarded with a goal.
In short, Rusyn grafted selflessly, was willing to test Tom Glover in the home goal, and on this occasion he came up trumps.
The role of leading the Sunderland line at this stage, as we try and carve out a clear identity under Michael Beale, can be a challenging one, but the Ukrainian is embracing the responsibility with gusto.
Now that he’s settling into life at the Stadium of Light, we’ll hopefully see him go from strength to strength, and there’s no doubt that he’s already becoming a real fan favourite.
I don’t want to sound like I’m digging Burstow out unnecessarily, because as I wrote in Monday’s edition of Talking Points, I do like him as a player and I’d love to see him make some telling contributions during the remainder of the campaign.
He’s a young lad who clearly wants to do well for us and therefore boost his prospects at Stamford Bridge in the process, and Sunday’s timid display aside, I don’t think you could really accuse him of hiding or shirking, unlike some of his gutless predecessors.
However, when Burstow performs as he did against Middlesbrough, it’s hard to escape the notion that Rusyn should be starting games from here on in, with Hemir and Burstow considered second and third in line.
I’d like to see the young Portuguese striker given more game time, but after being mismanaged appallingly earlier in the campaign and doubtless left confused as a result, perhaps more work is needed before he’s ready.
We simply can’t afford to carry passengers at this crucial stage of the season, and with Eliezer Mayenda on loan at Hibernian, the battle to lead the red and white attack isn’t quite as fierce, with Rusyn clearly doing more to justify his selection than anyone else at this moment.
When considering why it’s not quite working for Burstow, it’s difficult not to draw comparisons between himself and Joe Gelhardt, another player who arrived on Wearside with high expectations but didn’t really live up to them, a handful of decent displays aside.
However, where Gelhardt did succeed was through his willingness to chase, hassle the opposition, and generally do the hard yards. In the absence of Ross Stewart, we desperately needed a player who was willing to embrace the uglier side of centre forward play, and the Leeds loanee was certainly capable of doing that.
This was particularly prevalent during our trip to the Hawthorns last season, when he was kicked from pillar to post by the West Bromwich Albion defence, but continuously picked himself up off the deck and kept coming back for more.
It was a selfless display; an admirably tenacious performance in the face of some rough treatment, but that simply doesn’t appear to be part of Burstow’s game.
Indeed, the way the combative Sam Greenwood and Josh Coburn went about their business on Sunday really did highlight the difference between strikers who’ll engage and those who seemingly won’t, and just how key it can be in this division.
Regardless of the team’s fortunes, we also have a duty of care towards Burstow, which is what Chelsea would expect of us as well, and keeping him in the eye of the storm when things aren’t working will serve no purpose whatsoever.
Rusyn has done enough to earn a starting role for the upcoming games, and given Michael Beale’s much-heralded reputation as a coach at youth level, it would probably be best for all parties if Burstow is taken out of the firing line, given plenty of encouragement on the training ground, and perhaps shielded from the intensity of the first team picture for the next run of games.