The timely return of Danny Welbeck for Sunderland
A week that extends a winless streak to five games is rarely a source for optimism, especially when four have ended in defeat. Yet, for Sunderland, a spirited performance at the Emirates – rewarded with a solitary league point – and Niall Quinn’s contagious belief in his plans for the club have galvanised a fan base ready to believe that their pursuit of a top-half finish would end in vain.
From the goalless draw against Arsenal emerged a number of positives. Simon Mignolet is proving an ever-dependable deputy for Craig Gordon and portrayed his athleticism with an assured performance. As Sulley Muntari collects more minutes on the field, his influence on the game grows also. Yet a great deal of the reaction after the final whistle had forced Arsenal to down tools and accept a point apiece, reflected on the return of Danny Welbeck from injury. Delight that he made his first appearance since January, relief that he came through it unscathed.
Such emotions would have difficult to forecast upon his arrival at the Stadium of Light, but in addition to Welbeck’s obvious talents has come a persistence to improve – a trait that has turned sceptical initial opinion from a section of the club’s support on its head – and saw the youngster become the Black Cats’ form frontman throughout the autumn months. Welbeck was introduced on Saturday to refresh the attacking options of Sunderland, which could be further enhanced by Fraizer Campbell, should his comeback from a long-term injury go according to schedule.
In addition to the attacking pair Lee Cattermole is nearing full-fitness, which will have encouraging implications for Jordan Henderson. With Cattermole re-installed in midfield, Henderson’s defensive responsibilities diminish – something that the Academy of Light product has struggled to cope with in recent weeks. Enabling Henderson the freedom to get forward more frequently will give Asamoah Gyan another willing runner from midfield to feed whilst the axis of Cattermole and Muntari look to protect as efficiently as the defensive partnership of John Mensah and Titus Bramble did in Sunderland’s last game. Along with the eagerly-awaited returns of Welbeck, Campbell and Cattermole, and defender Michael Turner also on the comeback trail, Sunderland have a look of strength to them – particularly the options they can call upon from the substitutes bench, which has been populated by talented yet inexperienced teenagers of late.
There is a case to be made for all of the returning players when determining who has been missed most from a Sunderland perspective, but with Welbeck, and to a lesser extent Campbell, comes a tactical versatility that Steve Bruce has been without since the former limped off during the 1-0 win over Aston Villa in January. The England Under-21 forward is comfortable either on the left, or through the middle in the variations of 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 that Bruce has deployed this season. But perhaps the biggest miss, Bruce would argue, has been Welbeck’s goals.