Should Sam Allardyce use a front two at Sunderland or not?
Steven Fletcher and Jermaine Defoe have been responsible for more than half of Sunderland's league goals, but should they be played together? (Photo source: Sunderland Echo)

Sunderland have struggled incredibly this season, sitting in 19th as we head into the international break, four points from safety.

With just one clean sheet all season, that coming in their only win of the season, it has been the defence that have come under fire for the Black Cats' poor form, conceding the most goals in the league with 26.

However, with just 13 goals scored in 12 games, the attack has not been without it flaws either, though that has been partially down to the formation the team has been deployed in, as well as some poor finishing and bad luck.

Previous manager Dick Advocaat persisted with a 4-2-3-1 system that struggled to get the best out of his attack, with the lone striker often isolated and Jermain Defoe not suiting the role, meaning the team's best finisher was limited to either a wide role or a spot on the bench.

Sam Allardyce has tried to switch to a front two since arriving on Wearside, but has stumbled across obstacles, namely in that it means one less player behind the ball defending.

In the defeat to Everton, there is no doubt that Sunderland looked threatening going forward in a 3-5-2, but they would go on to concede six goals, paying the price for a lack of positional discipline that led to a difficult formation becoming very open.

The manager is now left with a huge dilemma - whether to strengthen Sunderland going forward, which looks to have some potential to it, or tighten up a leaky defence instead, which lacks promise in truth.

In other words, should Allardyce stick with a lone striker, or go for the two strikers?

Fletcher's isolation against Southampton suggest two up front needed

Sunderland's latest defeat, against Southampton, was a perfect example of how they would benefit from playing two strikers.

There was little in the game even if the Saints had more of the ball, with both teams having their fair share of chances. However, Yann M'Vila's terrible decision to dive in on Ryan Bertrand in the penalty area proved costly, the Frenchman conceding a needless penalty which decided the game.

Goal line clearances from DeAndre Yedlin and Sebastian Coates were required, admittedly, but the Black Cats did extremely well to see off the threat of their opponents.

Despite this though, they posed little to no threat going forward, bar Fabio Borini forcing a good save out of the goalkeeper moments after they conceded from the spot.

This came down to Steven Fletcher playing as a lone striker and having no support around him.

Steven Fletcher was more than isolated in Sunderland's 1-0 defeat at home to Southampton last time out.
Steven Fletcher was more than isolated in Sunderland's 1-0 defeat at home to Southampton last time out.

The Scotsman won the majority of aerial duels against Virgil van Dijk and Jose Fonte, rather impressively, but neither of his wingers or anyone from midfield was there to collect the knockdowns, meaning Sunderland's long ball tactic proved ineffective.

With a Defoe, Ola Toivonen or Borini around him, or even with the wingers closer to to him, then this would have been a different story, but this has to come from a change of tactics, be that to a flat 4-4-2, a 4-4-2 with a diamond, or the problematic but promising 3-5-2.

Had the Black Cats had more attackers forward against the Saints, then they may not have suffered defeat, or at least battled more going forward to avoid it.

Two means one less in midfield

The main issue with operating with two strikers, however, is that Sunderland then have one less body behind the ball to defend.

Getting players back, absorbing pressure and playing on the counter is their main way of playing, given that they know the superior quality on the ball that the majority of their opponents have. Thus, they need to defend well to keep a clean sheet in tact to get results, and to resist their opposition before going on the counter.

However, rectifying the defence, with the personnel currently available at least, seems a lost cause for Allardyce.

With 26 goals conceded in 12 games and only one clean sheet kept, that being against 10 men, Sunderland's best bet could be to focus on attacking and out-scoring the opponent.

Sitting deep is only inviting pressure to their goal, and they eventually cave in to this pressure regardless, whether it be due to a moment of brilliance from their opponent, as seen in the 1-0 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur, or an error on their own part, as seen against Southampton.

Therefore, getting players forward may be the best option.

Playing in a 4-4-1-1 set-up would allow Allardyce to get that extra body behind the ball whilst having the support up top, as long as that deeper striker pushed out quickly, as would simply instructing one of the front two to track back, giving the team a better chance of achieving both defensive solidity, or at least improvements at the back, and more options going forward.

Furthermore, Sunderland's defensive woes have largely occurred due to mistakes this season, and if these errors can be ironed out, then the defence will be much less fragile.

Forgetting the errors made, the team has not been ridiculously poor defensively, and so if Allardyce can find a way to eradicate these lapses in concentration, then there is no reason why he shouldn't push the team forward a little more and change to two up front.

Attacking approach would get fans behind Black Cats

Though the fans have not turned on the team yet, far from it, there is of course dissatisfaction amongst the supporters from results and performances of the team this season.

The defensive-minded displays have not been easy on the eye under Allardyce's reign and, even though the manager told fans it wouldn't be pretty, he also said it would be effective, but that has not yet been proved.

Thus, perhaps a switch to a more attacking approach, or at least a front two, would appease the supporters and show the team's desire to win again, as well as helping them get results by cancelling out a weak defence.

Fans were over-joyed in Sunderland's victory over local rivals Newcastle United - with the three goals as much a reason as the derby win.
Fans were over-joyed in Sunderland's victory over local rivals Newcastle United - with the three goals as much a reason as the derby win.

With Fletcher in top form, Defoe possessing clinical qualities, and the likes of Borini, Adam Johnson and Jeremain Lens, amongst others, all capable of finding the back of the net frequently, Sunderland could be a real force going forward, as was shown in glimpses against Everton.

They need to create chances for them to be taken though, and this will only be achieved by a change in approach from defensive to offensive.

Cannot afford to neglect the luxury that is Defoe

Another huge reason why Sunderland must switch to two up front is to keep Defoe on Wearside.

The Black Cats are extremely fortunate to have such a clinical and established goal-scorer in their squad given their position and situation, but if they continue to neglect and under-use him, then they could lose him just as easily.

Already linked with a move to former club Bournemouth in the January transfer window, the England international has admitted his frustration at his lack of playing time, and so it would not be such a huge surprise for him to leave, especially because Sunderland are relegation favourites.

Advocaat would not deploy Defoe as a lone striker during his reign, saying that he didn't fit the profile, and his decision is justified, with the veteran lacking an aerial presence and the necessary strength to win balls in the air and hold it up whilst waiting for reinforcements.

However, his energy and movement off the ball is perfect next to a target man, such as Fletcher, and the duo have been prolific when played together as a front two.

This is an option that Allardyce simply has to explore more given that the two have found the back of the net frequently this season despite feeding off scraps, scoring seven of the team's 13 league goals as well as Defoe netting a hat-trick in the League Cup against Exeter City.

Neither can carry the goal-scoring burden alone as a sole striker, whilst Defoe is wasted out wide, and if the manager does not realise that the best option is to play them together as a front two, then, in a couple of months time, he may lose Sunderland's best attacking outlet.

Will Allardyce change his ways?

The problem with a front two, however, is that it largely contradicts Allardyce's defensive style of play.

A traditional manager, he could possibly compromise with a 4-4-2, but it seems that, for now, he will stick with grinding out results - starting from the back.

Having said this, the 61-year-old showed his flexibility by playing with a 3-5-2 at Goodison Park, even if this was partially due to injuries, and the international break will give him time to ponder other options - including a front two.

Given Fletcher's lack of support at the Stadium of Light last time out, many will hope that he does look at the possibility of a striking duo, and decide that it is the best option for his side in order to get results and avoid the drop.