Sunderland’s scouts have been sent all the way to South America to find the cutting edge that can turn good football into winning football. Perhaps the answer was in their dressing room all along.
With Steven Fletcher missing headers he ought to have at least put on target in either half the focus has understandably been on finding a centre-forward. Jozy Altidore has also looked bereft of confidence for the last month or so, although coming off the bench to play a part in Adam Johnson’s last two goals (having also assisted El-Hadji Ba in the FA Cup) will hopefully help.
Whether it does or not, a new centre-forward is needed and Ignacio Scocco, an Argentinian playing in Brazil, is their prime target.
But goals do not only have to come from there, and Easington-born Johnson is in the sort of form to provide them. Johnson not only scored a hat-trick, starting with a repeat of his excellent free-kick of six days earlier, but made the other goal in a 4-1 win.
In seven days of football, he had been on the pitch for eight Sunderland goals. Four he scored himself, three he provided.
Johnson has always been a winger who prefers scoring to creating, which is why the left-footer is more effective on the right. Having never even scored twice in a Premier League game before, it would be wrong to expect too much.
But with the bottom half of the table so tight, each of the clubs in it needs only marginal gains to spend next season at English football’s top table. With only one defeat in their last nine games in all competitions and the confidence as much as the points that come with that, the team that was bottom at Christmas is capable of an escape.
In that respect, yesterday was a massive step forward. All season long they have beaten teams they ought not to, but gifted points to those around them. Until Saturday.
Gustavo Poyet has taught a patient and effective way of playing, but every now and then you need to do something different. Marcus Alonso’s first-half long throw was eyebrow-raising because it looked a bit too direct for a purist like Poyet. A deep Johnson free-kick headed into his path by John O’Shea for the first of Fletcher’s misses was another example of directness.
Johnson naturally moves his team through the gears.
When he signed for £10m two seasons ago, most people expected Sunderland to go to another level. They were not thinking it would be down.
At times he has looked unwilling to take games by the scruff of the neck. It cost him the England recognition the transfer was supposed to regain.
But in last week something clicked. The question now is whether he can sustain it over months, not days, to claim the World Cup spot which should be a given for an Englishman of his ability.
Johnson signalled his intent in the fourth minute at Craven Cottage. Released by Ki Sung-Yueng, he ran at John Arne Riise, who sent him flying. The next time the former Liverpool defender dived in like that, on Fabio Borini, Johnson punished him.
For the first half-hour on Saturday, Sunderland did not play that well, dominated by their hosts. But when chances came along they were clinical. It was the story of their season in reverse. That is the difference a goalscorer makes.
Dimitar Berbatov could have scored twice in the first ten minutes, but was unable to get a clean header on Adel Taarabt’s corner and, perhaps distracted by the low sun, seemed to fall onto a Sascha Riether cross begging to be buried.
Sunderland could only hint at better, Riether anticipating Borini’s excellent reverse pass before it reached Jack Colback, Phil Bardsley’s long ball just out of the sliding Italian’s reach. But when Steve Sidwell clipped Johnson as he dribbled across the area, the winger curled a free-kick David Stockdale could only help into his top corner.
Instructed by John O’Shea, Johnson pulled thee free-kick for Riise’s foul on Borini back to Ki. Stockdale had the shot covered until Philippe Senderos intervened.
When Sidwell ran past Alonso and Lee Cattermole to head in a corner eight minutes into the second half it looked like the Black Cats might have a game on their hands. But Johnson saw to that, driving in Ki’s exquisite pass, then converting the penalty after a Senderos foul on Altidore.
It was Sunderland’s first hat-trick since March 2010. Its scorer, Darren Bent, looked as hapless as the away fans hoped in his 11-minute cameo.
The only minor quibbles were the amateur dramatics which earned Johnson’s set-piece goals. The Black Cats were fortunate referee Mike Dean was not fooled by Johnson’s tumble and Altidore’s ludicrous “Splash” audition into thinking there had been no contact. Whether there was any by Riise on Borini was also debatable.
Getting a reputation as divers is not helpful to any team. Finding a goalscorer, though, is invaluable.