One of JanuaryÃ¢ÂÂs most surprising transfers was SunderlandÃ¢ÂÂs 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 Ã¢ÂÂ he also missed out on the Capital One Cup final victory over Bradford.
Graham is also a passionate supporter of SunderlandÃ¢ÂÂs 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. Ã¢ÂÂYouÃ¢ÂÂll always be scumÃ¢ÂÂ 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 heÃ¢ÂÂd support if Newcastle ceased to exist, Graham replied, Ã¢ÂÂPut it this way Ã¢ÂÂ IÃ¢ÂÂd stay as far away from Sunderland as I could.Ã¢ÂÂ Despite these concerns, there was little doubt that Sunderland supporters would take to Graham once he started playing well.
But thereÃ¢ÂÂs the problem Ã¢ÂÂ Sunderland havenÃ¢ÂÂt been performing well. Not for the first time, theyÃ¢ÂÂve hit a brick wall at this point in the season Ã¢ÂÂ and since Graham signed, theyÃ¢ÂÂve record just one point from five league matches, the 2-2 draw at home to Fulham, when they fought back from 2-0 down.
GrahamÃ¢ÂÂs arrival has forced Martin OhÃ¢ÂÂNeill to change his system. Previously, Sunderland played a 4-4-1-1 with Stephane Sessegnon behind Fletcher Ã¢ÂÂ 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. Ã¢ÂÂThe two players can play together,Ã¢ÂÂ insisted OÃ¢ÂÂNeill in February. Ã¢ÂÂI don't see that being a massive problem, but it is bound to take a little time.Ã¢ÂÂ
SunderlandÃ¢ÂÂs game is largely based around crossing, of course, and Adam Johnson was excited at the arrival of a second striker. Ã¢ÂÂSometimes when you have one striker in the box with two men around him, itÃ¢ÂÂs difficult to do anything,Ã¢ÂÂ he says. Ã¢ÂÂBut when all of a sudden you have to two strikers in the box it can make a real difference. IÃ¢ÂÂve said before to Fletch that when thereÃ¢ÂÂs just him in the box, it can be so hard to play him in, but when youÃ¢ÂÂve got more bodies in the box, you can often really get at teams.Ã¢ÂÂ
Fletcher, despite underlining his happiness at GrahamÃ¢ÂÂs arrival Ã¢ÂÂ the two have a good relationship off the pitch Ã¢ÂÂ didnÃ¢ÂÂt mind playing as the lone striker. Ã¢ÂÂI'm happy to play on my own up front, although I know not everyone is,Ã¢ÂÂ he said. Ã¢ÂÂBut, for me, I quite like the added pressure of the extra responsibility, I quite enjoy it.Ã¢ÂÂ
Since GrahamÃ¢ÂÂs 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 Ã¢ÂÂ winning lots of aerial duels...
Inevitably, SunderlandÃ¢ÂÂs 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 hasnÃ¢ÂÂt been a significant improvement in the success of the Black CatsÃ¢ÂÂ crossing Ã¢ÂÂ lots of balls are pumped into the box, but they rarely find Fletcher or Graham.
And itÃ¢ÂÂs 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 GrahamÃ¢ÂÂs signing, but just one since, itÃ¢ÂÂs hard to make a case for Sunderland being more threatening upfront.
Another problem is the lack of interplay between the pair. Granted, SunderlandÃ¢ÂÂs approach is based around crossing, which doesnÃ¢ÂÂt necessarily depend upon a good direct partnership, but itÃ¢ÂÂs still concerning that Fletcher and Graham combine so infrequently.
Against QPR, they took a centre together, then combined within their own half Ã¢ÂÂ nothing at all close to the opposition goal.
OÃ¢ÂÂNeill believed the partnership would take time to get right Ã¢ÂÂ there are little signs of progress so far.
This weekendÃ¢ÂÂs home fixture with Norwich is a perfect opportunity for them to finally click Ã¢ÂÂ and Sunderland still need wins. Six points off the relegation zone, with games against Manchester United, Chelsea, Newcastle, Everton and Tottenham to come Ã¢ÂÂ plus matches against Southampton and Aston Villa sides fighting for their lives Ã¢ÂÂ Sunderland arenÃ¢ÂÂt yet safe. Graham needs to justify his transfer fee soon, or OÃ¢ÂÂNeill might revert back to his previous system.
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