Analysis: Is Adam Johnson's downfall a footballing blow to Sunderland's survival bid?

As chance after chance went begging in a hands-on-head second half at the Boleyn Ground, Sunderland could have done with some poise and quality in the final third.

Adam Johnson playing for Sunderland.
Adam Johnson playing for Sunderland.

Then again, every side faces afternoons when the opposition goal leads a charmed life and Sam Allardyce’s men bounced back by scoring a brace three days later against Crystal Palace.

In general, Sunderland aren’t too badly off from an attacking sense after netting more than any other side in the bottom eight.

Adam Johnson

It’s the hapless problems at the other end of the pitch which continue to dog the Black Cats.

But was last weekend’s loss at West Ham a game where Sunderland could have done with an Adam Johnson to enter the fray from the bench and provide that crucial breakthrough?

Completely setting aside the judicial and moral discussions over Johnson’s downfall, how does the end of the 28-year-old’s Sunderland career affect the Black Cats’ bid to remain in the Premier League?

Johnson’s 141 appearances for Sunderland perhaps never hit the heights first expected of him when he arrived in a £10million move from Manchester City.

Adam Johnson

The Easington-born winger’s return to the North East was understandably viewed as a game-changer for Sunderland as a Premier League force, yet he never really fulfilled those lofty hopes.

That wasn’t necessarily Johnson’s fault. He spent his Sunderland career in a tiresomely toiling side, where his responsibilities revolved as much around tracking-back as they did with creating.

It would be unjust to overlook a contribution of 22 goals in red and white, including four in the six successive derby wins over Newcastle.

Those inside the club saw Johnson (probably rightly) as Sunderland’s most naturally gifted player, capable of producing that one moment of magic to turn the course of the game.

But did they arrive frequently enough to justify a £60,000 a week wage packet?

Under Gus Poyet, Dick Advocaat and Sam Allardyce, Johnson went from certain-starter to in and out of the first-team picture.

As Johnson admitted in court, the legal proceedings hanging over him affected his contribution on the field by playing on his mind.

But it wasn’t just psychological factors which hampered Johnson.

The explosiveness had gone from his game. The ability to drop a shoulder and ghost past a full-back became an increasingly rare sight.

At times, he looked distinctly laboured.

Allardyce recognised it, and devised a plot to deploy Johnson in a number 10 role, akin to the one handed to his ex-Middlesbrough team-mate Stewart Downing, who had thrived in that role under the Sunderland boss at West Ham last season.

“He’s not quite as quick as he used to be, but he can be very effective because he’s got a good football brain,” said Allardyce.

In recent games against Premier League heavyweights, Allardyce abolished that position in favour of three more combative players in the middle of the park.

It was a pragmatic, common-sense ploy to restrict the space in the middle of the park to players in the upper echelons of the top flight.

But that strategy was not a universal one. With Sunderland still requiring a further five wins, there had to be a more attack-minded element to the side at some stage, hence the inclusion of Jack Rodwell in the starting XI against Palace.

History suggests that it is far too hasty to be lauding Rodwell as the answer though.

Johnson’s downfall removes one of the attacking options available to Allardyce, already facing up to the absence of Duncan Watmore for another month or so.

However, that’s what made the £9million January capture of Wahbi Khazri so important.

For all the speculation surrounding a swap deal involving Andre Ayew and Fabio Borini – albeit the latter’s camp continually stressed that he was going nowhere – Sunderland needed an extra attacking option in the window, not an alternative one.

Khazri is perfectly capable of operating as a No 10 if required. after playing there for former club Bordeaux in the first half of the season.

The Tunisian international clearly has the attitude and engine to lend a helping hand to his full-back when he is used out wide, and an understanding with Patrick van Aanholt is already beginning to form down that left-hand side.

But Khazri is a cute, intelligent player, who will find midfield gaps if he is used as the most advanced member of a central midfield trio.

And, in effectively swapping Johnson in the attacking ranks for the injection of energy provided by Khazri, Sunderland may actually be better off.

No team can have enough match-winners in their midst, and Johnson proved his quality over recent months – that free-kick at Liverpool, and the wonderful through-ball for van Aanholt’s goal at Spurs.

But his dismissal is no fatal wound for Sunderland.

It will be no excuse in the survival battle.