When the fourth official held aloft his board bearing the number nine in the match against AFC Wimbledon, it was disappointing to hear the smattering of jeers that greeted Charlie Wyke’s departure from the pitch.
Doing something that grinds down the confidence of your own player is baffling and mocking him on social networking sites is equally as backwards. Of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but in the impulsive, polarising social media age it is important to have perspective when you articulate it. One bad game, or a bad patch like the one he is experiencing at the minute, does not make him a bad player.
Charlie Wyke is a good footballer. You don’t carve out a career in a game as he has by getting lucky in front of each scout and coach that has watched him for the past twenty years. He managed 15 goals for Bradford at this level, so has more than enough quality for this level, and we’ve all seen enough mercenaries over the past few seasons to know that effort is not the issue here. There are other factors at play.
There are factors beyond Wyke’s control affecting his ability to make an impact. His Sunderland career has been blighted by injury, and only managed his first 90 minutes of the season in the 1-1 draw at Charlton last month. Wyke has half a season’s worth of catching up to do; Josh Maja’s departure has thrust him into the spotlight and made his return to form an all the more pressing issue. Quite frankly, no Sunderland fan can write him off as they have not seen enough of him to do so.
Then there is his size, more specifically in comparison to those around him. Sunderland’s squad is and has been for the past few years, tiny, especially in the midfield and forward areas. Measuring up at 6’1, Wyke stands out as the tallest player in these areas and is the obvious target for aerial deliveries. Any other qualities he has aren’t properly catered for as his strengths as a target man are unique within this squad.
Making him perform that role isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but he often cuts an isolated figure up front. When Sunderland have the ball on the edge of the box, there are often more players looking to deliver the ball into the area than there are looking to get on the end of it. Though Sunderland don’t have much aerial threat besides Wyke, committing more men into these positions with him would at least draw some defenders away from him or present options for a knock-down. With the opposition often playing ten men behind the ball and hoping for a draw, Wyke often finds himself vastly outnumbered.
This was very much the case against Wimbledon. When the ball was played long out of defence the Wimbledon defence doubled up on Wyke and nobody exploited the extra space his presence created. Of course, allowances for the players around him have to be made; Lewis Morgan was thrust into the starting XI for his debut less than an hour before kick-off because Lynden Gooch’s Mrs went into labour and George Honeyman was making his first appearance after over a month out injured. But if Wyke does not have support around him, be it another striker or midfielder, his efforts will be wasted. If we manage to do this, he has the quality to deliver.
This was part of the reason Sunderland struggled against a Wimbledon side, on paper, they should have beaten comfortably. The first thing Wimbledon goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale had to do, that didn’t involve timewasting on goal kicks, was to pick the ball out of his net in the 67th minute. Sunderland were devoid of creativity against the side propping up the division and only managed one more shot on target in the entire game, with Aiden McGeady carving the opportunity after a great pass from Leadbitter. Maybe this is fine against sides battling relegation but must be rectified in the coming few months if promotion is the aim.