Sunderland’s signing of Danny Graham has given manager Martin O’Neill food for thought ahead of the visit of Arsenal at the weekend. Chief Football Writer Paul Fraser examines his options
IT has always been Martin O’Neill’s policy to stick by his preferred players in the hope continuity will eventually lead to success. Having landed Danny Graham on deadline day, however, the temptation to change things has suddenly grown.
Even if he is unaware of the increased calls from the supporters, he will be leaning heavily towards partnering Graham in attack with Steven Fletcher. He would be silly not to.
Only in time will O’Neill know for sure if that particular combination will work but the extra goalscoring power is something Sunderland are desperately crying out for.
After spending the majority of the January transfer window pursuing him, Graham will not be too far away from a starting role - and this Saturday’s visit of Arsenal provides the perfect opportunity.
There is a justified argument that Sunderland would be better off tightening things up for the visit of the Gunners. With the backing of a near capacity Stadium of Light crowd, though, attack could well be the best form of defence.
When Adam Johnson was asked earlier this week what he thinks of Graham, his answer reflected a winger keen to have a poacher ready to make the most of the chances he creates.
“The ball always seems to fall to Danny in the box,” said Johnson. “He knows where the ball will go and I hope they will start going in for him.”
In the space of the ten minutes Graham had on the pitch at Reading he was in the right place to have two fantastic chances. Both were denied on that occasion, yet he has been around professional football long enough to know the next time such chances fall his way they are equally likely to go in.
The 27-year-old scored 40 goals in 113 matches for Carlisle and then hit 41 in 98 appearances for Watford for his first two clubs after having limited opportunities at Middlesbrough.
For those who regard him as merely a Football League striker, Graham still scored 21 times for Swansea in his 62 appearances for the Premier League club.
For the £5m buy to be thrown in to O’Neill’s attacking mix from the start rather than from the bench someone is going to have to miss out.
The identity of the fall-guy will become clearer over the weeks ahead, but Sunderland’s scoring record this season suggests the time could be right to try something different.
Playing with both Fletcher, who effectively picks himself after scoring ten times in his first 28 appearances for the club, and Graham together cries out for two wingers more sending over teasing crosses.
Johnson, a £10m buy from Manchester City, is one. He might have only scored four goals in his first 28 appearances for the Black Cats but would flourish having an extra striker feeding off his deliveries.
The former Middlesbrough winger’s ability to play on both flanks does give O’Neill extra options. Two of Stephane Sessegnon, James McClean and Seb Larsson, however, would have to be left out.
Sessegnon remains by far the most skilful out of those three. On his day he is a player of Champions League quality, but reaching such heights rarely happens.
Given the fact he does not score many goals, Sessegnon needs to lay on more than the three goals he has this season.
Sessegnon has never been prolific in his career and is more of a luxury player. He has scored 14 goals in his two years on Wearside, but to play behind a lone striker - as he has been this season - that figure needs to be considerably increased to warrant staying in that role ahead of Graham.
Such is Sessegnon’s undoubted talent it would be a bold move by O’Neill to leave out the Benin international. The only other alternative would be to play him out wide and hope he can come in to his own.
Larsson provides precision from set-pieces and his crossing, McClean is more unpredictable but capable of delivering on the big stage when he is given the freedom to stick to the line rather than cut inside.
Sessegnon, for all he looks good on the ball and is capable of changing a game, must either prove it is right he is regarded as a secondstriker or at least a creative winger. At the moment he is neither.
If Sunderland are to fulfil ambitions of finishing regularly in the Premier League’s top ten, they need all of their attacking players to shine.
A failure to do so and O’Neill may have greater restructuring on his hands in the summer than he would hope.
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