Player in Focus: Watmore could Sunderland ask for?

Duncan Watmore produced a man-of-the-match performance for Sunderland in Tuesday’s 5-0 victory over Tranmere.

Is he back to his best? Gabriel Sutton (@_FootbalLab) discusses.

Early promise

Firstly, Watmore had a hugely exciting start to his Premier League career.

In a very poor team performance from Sunderland, when they lost heavily to Norwich in August 2015, he made his league debut by coming off the bench, lighting up the pitch and grabbing a goal.

Watmore played a huge role in keeping the Black Cats up that season.

Injuries

It was hoped that the academy graduate could progress from that 2015-16 campaign but alas, injuries stunted his progress; the collective decline under David Moyes, Simon Grayson then Chris Coleman hardly helped, too.

Watmore went nine months without kicking a professional ball from December 2016, then 11 months shortly after – and up until October this year, he had only played half an hour of league action since March.

Whenever the Mancunian has been injured, it has tended to be a very long-lasting injury and that will have been difficult to cope with psychologically.

The fact he can come through all this and still be a top performer for his team speaks volumes – about both the player and the man.

Pace

In the Premier League, Watmore’s game was also about taking opponents on at the first opportunity.

His performances since returning, though, have not necessarily been about running with the ball – in fact, he is yet to complete single dribble this season.

Rather, the most striking thing has been his sharpness of movement, his willingness to make quick, early runs in behind and stretch the game, as well as do a lot of pressing off the ball.

The energy in Watmore’s performances made him valuable in the top-flight, let alone League One, so if the Black Cats can get the 25-year-old back to peak fitness, he could be a major asset.

What happens to McGeady?

For much of the season, Sunderland have had a systematic issue with Aiden McGeady and Chris Maguire starting in the same XI.

The problem was not that they are not both very capable players but rather, they are stylistically similar; full of quality but indulgent on the ball, unlikely to lead the press off it and tend to condense the play by moving into central areas.

Without McGeady, as we saw against Tranmere in midweek, Maguire was handed a free, central role, knowing he had runners either side of him in Lynden Gooch and Watmore; in fairness to the ex-Oxford man, he put in a good shift himself.

McGeady is not a number 10, he likes to drift in from the left wing, but the left wing is where Gooch played last time out, with Watmore on the right.

For so long, we have thought that McGeady has been the one single-handedly inspiring Sunderland to outperform their shot data – and there was justification in that, because he produced a lot of vital quality from outside the box, last season especially.

Equally, the 33-year-old might also have been partly responsible for the slow tempo and lack of intensity that natives bemoaned for much of Jack Ross’ tenure.

Now that the current, McGeady-less template is working, Phil Parkinson may have to use the Irishman as a dream game-changer on the bench, rather than a guaranteed starter – which is testament to the impact Watmore has made.

Still time?

It may be too late for Watmore to scale the kinds of heights he might have aspired to at the beginning of his Sunderland career, when he starred after signing from Altrincham.

However, there is no reason why he cannot go on to have a strong career in the Championship.

A bit more luck on the injury front and Watmore can be a very useful player for Sunderland as they look to close the five-point gap on the automatic promotion places.


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