The case for Connor Wickham

DESPERATION is in the air at the Stadium of Light. Things are not quite apocalyptic just yet, Sunderland fans have witnessed far worse situations than the current one, but the upcoming winter may well be one of discontent for Steve Bruce and his squad.

Bruce's claim following last week's loss at Arsenal, that his side has "only played badly once this season", was certainly one which could be argued against. The manager's annoyance at what he perceives to be unrealistic expectations seems to miss the point somewhat; Sunderland have won just five times since New Year's Day.

One of the issues that currently rankles supporters is not only the side's results, but some fairly baffling tactical decisions and substitutions in recent games.

On Sunday past, the Black Cats packed the midfield in the hope of stifling their illustrious counterparts. Problematically, they also played a deep defensive line, and eventually succumbed to the pressure they invited upon themselves.

It has become blatantly obvious that the 4-4-1-1 formation designed to get the best out of the enigmatic Stephane Sessegnon is one that doesn't work for Sunderland. Furthermore, huge question marks hang gloomily over the heads of the side's central midfield and, in particular, the captain, Lee Cattermole.

What is more, Bruce's reluctance to play either of the two strikers he signed this summer in anything more than bit-part roles is something which many have queried. Ji Dong-won has appeared in most games from the bench, even netting a goal against Chelsea, but it is the omission of the young Connor Wickham that seems harder to justify.

Wickham, signed for a hefty fee from Ipswich Town in the summer, is only 18 years old. Bruce is acutely aware of this, and is worried that throwing the striker in at the deep end could potentially damage his undoubted potential.

The problem with this view is, when he has fleetingly appeared in red and white stripes, Wickham hasn't looked fazed by Premier League football at all. Conversely, the only ones who have looked fazed have been opposition defenders; when Wickham comes on to the field, opposing players are notable in their wariness of him.

Perhaps it is the reputation he has garnered for himself, or maybe it is just his sheer physical presence - Wickham stands six feet three inches tall, and boasts a larger frame than the Lowry painting-esque one that the likes of Peter Crouch display.

Of course, he hasn't scored for the club yet, but the potential is there - it just needs to be unleashed. Bruce's view that throwing him into the lion's den could be counter-intuitive is one that can be reasoned with, but with nothing else working, why not?

In addition to worrying the opposition, Wickham would also fit in with Sunderland's usual style of play. Though not on the same level as Stoke City, the Wearsiders remain a team that is prone to the odd long ball, especially when things start to become a bit desperate. Wickham's aerial presence would act as the perfect foil for Nicklas Bendtner's preference for receiving the ball to his feet, and the pair could well form a good partnership.

His introduction to the side would see two strikers employed, thus eliminating this season's frequent problem of the lone frontman becoming isolated. Moreover, it would enable Sessegnon to revert to a role on the wing (replacing the ineffective Ahmed Elmohamady), where his trickery and unpredictable nature could reap further benefits.

It remains to be seen whether Steve Bruce will employ the Connor Wickham option, or whether or not it is even one he has seriously considered. If he does, the youngster could well become Bruce's hidden weapon and, in doing so, save his job.

CHRIS WEATHERSPOON

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