The key issue Sunderland’s new manager needs to address
Written by Adam Foster on 6th December 2023
Following the departure of manager Tony Mowbray on Monday evening, there is one pressing issue that his successor must face – Sunderland’s worrying inability to convert chances.
Mowbray arguably paid the price for his side’s toothless attack, leaving the club in ninth place and three points off the play-offs.
Sunderland’s inability to convert after impressive approach play is highlighted by the numbers. For example, the Black Cats’ four young strikers, Mason Burstow, Nazariy Rusyn, Luis Hemir Semedo and Eliezer Mayenda, have failed to find the back of the net in 19 games this season.
This is not to say that Sunderland have not been creating chances, however.
They are third in total shots in the Championship this season with 310, only behind Ipswich Town and Leeds United (stats via FBref).
They have also outperformed their opponents in terms of XG (expected goals) in their last three away games: Millwall 0.77 v Sunderland 1.62, Plymouth Argyle 1.22 v Sunderland 1.88, Swansea City 0.89 v Sunderland 2.05 (stats via @Phil__Smith on X).
From an accumulated XG of 5.55, Mowbray’s side only scored one goal – highlighting the lack of ruthlessness from the attacking players.
Spark Sunderland spoke exclusively to Stephen Goldsmith from the Wise Men Say podcast, as well as North East football journalist James Copley, about Sunderland’s struggles in front of goal – and both believe adding experience could be key.
Goldsmith believes Sunderland’s inability to convert more chances this season is because “centre forward play is an art and we don’t have someone good enough yet.”
He added: “We haven’t had one as good as Ross Stewart, Nathan Broadhead or Ellis Simms. People talk a lot about creating chances for the ones we have, but as we saw with Jermaine Defoe in a stinking David Moyes team, good strikers still find a way.”
Simms, despite only being 22, enjoyed a fruitful loan spell at Sunderland in 2022, scoring seven goals in 17 games. However, the hierarchy did not want to pay Everton’s asking price, and he ended up at Coventry City in the summer.
Copley said: “I think Sunderland have recruited talented strikers but unfortunately, they weren’t Championship-ready.
“Hemir hadn’t played any first-team football and nor had Mayenda. Rusyn is older but also adapting to a new country and Burstow has looked better coming off the left-hand side of the attack.”
The young strikers’ inability to find the back of the net means questions have been asked about where the blame lies.
But Goldsmith believes the blame lies solely at the door of the recruitment team.
He said: “Instead of getting three unknowns who may need years to develop, be a little flexible on your model and get someone you feel is a little bit more of a sure thing to hit the ground running.”
He also thinks the club bringing in a more experienced striker would help massively.
“As a fan, it’s been extremely refreshing to watch these young players express themselves. But we all need mentors and to learn from peers in our respective careers and football is no different.”
Copley believes it is a collective failure. He said: “Sunderland perhaps could have done with a more experienced striker. However, four new faces in that position have been brought to the club and have yet to find their feet.
“The players should shoulder some responsibility for that. as well as the coaching staff.”
Nick Barnes, the Sunderland commentator for BBC Radio Newcastle, told Spark that Mowbray was “consulted” but that his involvement was” very minor,” adding: “I don’t think he had a huge amount of control over who they signed.”
Goldsmith shares James’ opinion that an experienced striker would add to the squad, following the departure of Ross Stewart last summer.
Asked about whether the Black Cats should and will sign a striker in the January transfer window, Goldsmith replied: “In theory, we have four strikers on the books – it’s unlikely they [the board] will think trying for another is the answer and that we need to work with our investments.”
He added that bringing someone in who “knows the ropes a bit more” would be beneficial, but doubts it will happen.
Copley added: “I think it is definitely something Sunderland will be looking at if a striker wearing red and white doesn’t find the net before January.”
Sunderland have already been linked with a handful of strikers in January, including Wimbledon striker Ali Al-Hamadi (if you want to read more click here), but the hierarchy will have to see what the new manager can get out of the current crop before choosing whether to spend in January.