Why Danny Graham mustn't dally in proving his worth to Sunderland

ZonalMarking.net's Michael Cox uses FourFourTwo's StatsZone app – now FREE – to run the rule over one of January's biggest transfers...

One of January’s most surprising transfers was Sunderland’s purchase of Swansea City striker Danny Graham.

It was peculiar for a few reasons. In an otherwise underwhelming campaign, Sunderland were benefiting from the prolific goalscoring of Steven Fletcher, and it seemed unwise to compromise his role in the side. There was also the question of why Graham wanted to drop down the league, having been in good form for Swansea shortly before his move – he also missed out on the Capital One Cup final victory over Bradford.

Graham is also a passionate supporter of Sunderland’s fierce rivals Newcastle United, which led to him being booed when playing at the Stadium of Light in a Swansea shirt, just two days before his move. “You’ll always be scum” was the Sloop John B-tuned song of choice for the Mackems, partly because Graham had previously said inflammatory things about the club. Once asked who he’d support if Newcastle ceased to exist, Graham replied, “Put it this way – I’d stay as far away from Sunderland as I could.” Despite these concerns, there was little doubt that Sunderland supporters would take to Graham once he started playing well.

But there’s the problem – Sunderland haven’t been performing well. Not for the first time, they’ve hit a brick wall at this point in the season – and since Graham signed, they’ve record just one point from five league matches, the 2-2 draw at home to Fulham, when they fought back from 2-0 down.

Graham’s arrival has forced Martin Oh’Neill to change his system. Previously, Sunderland played a 4-4-1-1 with Stephane Sessegnon behind Fletcher – the Benin international has, of course, previously deputised as a centre-forward in his Sunderland career, but this season he played a supporting role.

Now, Sunderland are a 4-4-2. “The two players can play together,” insisted O’Neill in February. “I don't see that being a massive problem, but it is bound to take a little time.”

Sunderland’s game is largely based around crossing, of course, and Adam Johnson was excited at the arrival of a second striker. “Sometimes when you have one striker in the box with two men around him, it’s difficult to do anything,” he says. “But when all of a sudden you have to two strikers in the box it can make a real difference. I’ve said before to Fletch that when there’s just him in the box, it can be so hard to play him in, but when you’ve got more bodies in the box, you can often really get at teams.”

Fletcher, despite underlining his happiness at Graham’s arrival – the two have a good relationship off the pitch – didn’t mind playing as the lone striker. “I'm happy to play on my own up front, although I know not everyone is,” he said. “But, for me, I quite like the added pressure of the extra responsibility, I quite enjoy it.”

Since Graham’s arrival, Fletcher has been forced into a deeper position. While Graham stays upfront and is barely involved in build-up play, Fletcher drops off. In the game against Fulham he concentrated on working the left channel, while Graham stayed in the box...

Away at QPR, Graham again remained central, but Fletcher drifted right – winning lots of aerial duels...

Inevitably, Sunderland’s build-up play still starts from the flanks, with the vast majority of their entries into the final third coming on the wings. But there hasn’t been a significant improvement in the success of the Black Cats’ crossing – lots of balls are pumped into the box, but they rarely find Fletcher or Graham.

And it’s not like Graham has contributed much in front of goal. The passes he receives are often long, straight balls rather than through-balls or dangerous crosses, and his finishing has been unimpressive. Considering Fletcher had scored ten goals in 22 starts before Graham’s signing, but just one since, it’s hard to make a case for Sunderland being more threatening upfront.

Another problem is the lack of interplay between the pair. Granted, Sunderland’s approach is based around crossing, which doesn’t necessarily depend upon a good direct partnership, but it’s still concerning that Fletcher and Graham combine so infrequently.

Against QPR, they took a centre together, then combined within their own half – nothing at all close to the opposition goal.

O’Neill believed the partnership would take time to get right – there are little signs of progress so far.

This weekend’s home fixture with Norwich is a perfect opportunity for them to finally click – and Sunderland still need wins. Six points off the relegation zone, with games against Manchester United, Chelsea, Newcastle, Everton and Tottenham to come – plus matches against Southampton and Aston Villa sides fighting for their lives – Sunderland aren’t yet safe. Graham needs to justify his transfer fee soon, or O’Neill might revert back to his previous system.

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