Chris Young analysis: Defenders surely have to be Sunderland’s transfer priority

Adam Johnson in action against Everton.
Adam Johnson in action against Everton.

In his grand unveiling as Sunderland manager, Sam Allardyce brushed aside questions on whether he had been promised a transfer swag bag by Ellis Short.

Let’s face it though, it would be naive in the extreme to believe the topic of transfer reinforcements had barely been mentioned between the pair when they held discussions over the vacancy at the Stadium of Light a month ago.

It is defensive, not offensive, reinforcements which are so badly, badly needed in January

Despite the eight signings made by Sunderland during the summer, there were clearly still deficiencies in the squad left at Dick Advocaat’s disposal on September 1 and Allardyce will have known that as he contemplated leaving the deck-chair of his Spanish villa.

Allardyce will surely have stressed the magnitude of entering the market in January, for a window which could be meteoric in determining whether Sunderland pocket the loot from the Premier League’s new television deal next season, or are playing a painful game of Championship cost-cutting.

Even in his opening few weeks at the helm, Allardyce has been open to attacking options available on the Bosman market, with Chinedu Obasi joining (and then leaving) on trial.

But it is defensive, not offensive, reinforcements which are so badly, badly needed in January – and have been throughout these opening 11 games, which have seen Sunderland breached on a frightening 25 occasions.

The only specialist left-back in Sunderland’s squad, Patrick van Aanholt, has been a defensive liability all season.

The wing-back role at Goodison Park yesterday suited him much more, where he was a livewire going forwards – hitting the post inside the opening four minutes and then delivering the cross from which Steven Fletcher headed home his third in four games.

But even further forwards, van Aanholt switched off; nowhere near Gerard Deulofeu as he raced through for Everton’s opener, albeit Billy Jones was equally to blame for his lack of awareness over the impressive ex-Barcelona man.

Sunderland, similarly need a fresh face in central defence.

John O’Shea and Younes Kaboul have both been culpable on more than one occasion this season, yet they are by far the best options available to Allardyce.

With the pair both on the treatment table yesterday... crikey, it was harrowing stuff for both Sebastian Coates and Wes Brown, particularly the latter, whose five months without competitive action were brutally exposed by the excellent Romelu Lukaku.

Brown continually tried to get in front of Lukaku and nick the ball ahead of him, but he neither had the sharpness nor strength to do it.

Perhaps Brown’s rust played a part in Allardyce’s decision to throw a curve ball and include Jones in a three-man central defence, while recalling van Aanholt to the starting XI after a four-game absence.

Doubtless, there will be plenty of micro-analysis on Sunderland this week and Allardyce’s decision to try a 5-3-2 set-up, for which the Black Cats provided a dossier-full of ammunition after a Goodison Park butchering.

But sometimes, formations are irrelevant.

Sometimes, wins or defeats are purely down to players being exceptionally good or rank bad.

Defensively, Sunderland fell firmly into the latter category yesterday.

No manager can legislate for the individual blunders, huge gaps or horrifying lapses in concentration which saw Everton run riot, particularly in a devastating second half period after Sunderland had turned around a two-goal deficit.

The performance won’t necessarily have been an eye-opener for Allardyce, yet for a manager who has prided himself on his teams being defensively resolute, it showed the magnitude of the task he faces to inject some solidity into Sunderland’s ranks.

But while the formation wasn’t necessarily to blame, was there enough for Allardyce to persist with it, or does he have to confine it to the recycle bin?

Going forwards, Sunderland looked as dangerous as they have done during Allardyce’s reign, with attacking trio Jermain Defoe, Steven Fletcher and Adam Johnson all a threat, particularly on the counter-attack.

Whether the incentive of a new contract is motivating Fletcher or he’s simply enjoying a run of confidence after three goals in four games, the Scot looks a far more potent and accomplished figure, and linked up excellently with Defoe, who took his goal like the arch-poacher he is.

If Allardyce can make the 5-3-2 sufficiently resilient to leave three players high up the pitch, then there’s plenty to persevere with.

But when Defoe first signed in January, Poyet’s initial instinct was to use the England international in a similar set-up. Sunderland lost at Spurs and then drew with Championship Fulham in the FA Cup.

Equally, the brutal question has to be asked over whether Sunderland have three capable centre-halves to operate a 5-3-2, even when O’Shea and Kaboul return.

Potentially, Jack Rodwell could play there – and that’s certainly an option worth exploring on the training field – but at presentit’s still a great unknown.

Look back on Allardyce’s successful teams at Bolton, Blackburn and West Ham, and he’s had defenders who fulfilled that elementary job specification.

Does he have sufficient of those currently at his disposal?

The brutality of yet another defeat after derby euphoria would suggest not.