After a lacklustre start to his time at Sunderland AFC, Aiden O’Brien currently appears to be a favourable option to Lee Johnson, playing alongside Charlie Wyke as part of a front two; despite this, he doesn’t appear to be receiving the praise I believe he deserves.
Having only registered four goals in all competitions after twenty-three appearances, the Republic of Ireland international clearly does not gain his place in the team through his ability to get on the scoresheet, rather his ability to aid others in scoring goals, namely his strike partner: Wyke. Away to AFC Wimbledon, on the 16th January, was the first time we saw O’Brien and Wyke partnered together in a 4-2-2-2 formation which saw the ex-Millwall forward pick up an assist for our number nine’s opener.
Following this, the pair have now started alongside each other for seven league games in a row, seeing Wyke score six goals, a return that SuperKev would be proud of. Whilst O’Brien has only gained a single assist out of these strikes, his role has still been significant. For Wyke’s goal against both Ipswich Town and MK Dons, O’Brien played the penultimate ball after resisting pressure on the ball and moving it onto a well-positioned teammate for the next stage of play. Additionally, his work rate sees him getting plenty of the ball deeper on the pitch, both winning the ball back and moving it forward, as well as leaving Wyke space by dropping out wide and deeper, allowing Wyke to occupy the penalty box area and focus on getting into the right areas to receive service to convert chances, relieving a lot of a forward’s duties.
But fans obviously still want the twenty-seven-year-old to contribute goals too, as all strike partnerships rely on both players attaining respectable goal return. Whilst O’Brien has frustratingly missed several chances on goal, he’s still proven he has the ability to chip in with a few, and his tidy header at home to Plymouth Argyle and his well-taken chances against Port Vale and Shrewsbury have shown signs of improvement in front of goal.
The addition of Ross Stewart, when he becomes available, is an exciting one; at 6ft 5 with apparent pace, he will hopefully offer us the extra mobility and physicality we lack up top to stretch and overcome defenders as well as more squad depth.
It’s clear that Wyke has finally shown himself to be the effective goalscorer at this level that we hoped he’d be when we bought him three seasons ago, aided, I believe, by the hard work of Aiden O’Brien. Should O’Brien continue to improve his conversion rate, this partnership may be able to provide us with enough goals to be in a decent position come May, provided we can sort out our defensive woes.