Sunderland's search for a head coach remains their immediate priority this summer. The need for an experienced 'number nine' is not too far behind.

The Black Cats goal scoring woes - aside from Jack Clarke - are well documented. Last season their four strikers scored just three goals between them in 2,451 minutes of football.

While Clarke topped the goal scoring charts for the Black Cats - his 15 goals and four assists contributing to just under half of Sunderland's goals scored in the Championship. The Wearsiders managed 52 across the entire league campaign, the lowest amount of goals scored by a play-off team was West Brom with 70 goals, Norwich City the second lowest with 79.

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On paper, the Wearsiders need another 18 goals to be in top-six contention, and even then, it may not guarantee you a play-off berth. Coventry City scored 70 goals and finished in ninth place, while Middlesbrough scored 71 goals and finished in eighth place.

Sunderland's second highest goal scorer was Jobe Bellingham with seven goals, while Nazariy Rusyn 'top-scored' out their forwards, with just two goals.

It's glaringly obvious, they need an improvement at the top end of the pitch, if they want to be competitive at the top end of the division.

However, while the answer appears straightforward - sign a proven Championship goalscorer - interim Black Cats boss Mike Dodds suggested that the club think otherwise.

"I don’t think it’s necessarily a number nine that we need,” Dodds said after the 1-0 defeat to Millwall at the end of the season. “If you look at last year, then you wouldn’t say we had a recognised number nine, but the season was relatively successful in terms of us getting to the play-offs.

“I don’t think the answer is that we have to go out and sign a number nine. I think the answer is that we need more quality in the top area of the pitch.

“For whatever reason, Patrick Roberts hasn’t had the same season he had last year, we obviously lost Amad Diallo and Joe Gelhardt, and when you’re taking those sort of players out of the top area of the pitch, then it’s going to have an impact.

“But I don’t think it’s a case of if we find a number nine, all of our problems will be solved. We need more depth. It’s not just a number nine issue. It might be an attacking midfielder that might be the answer to some of the questions we have. Or it might be a tactical thing.

“In recent weeks, we’ve looked a lot harder team to play against, but the missing ingredient is just that little bit of extra quality in the top end of the pitch. It’ll either be players we’ve got, where we need a summer working with them, or it’ll be other players coming in.”

We Are Sunderland: Sunderland interim head coach Mike Dodds.Sunderland interim head coach Mike Dodds. (Image: Ian Horrocks)

While there may be some truth in what Dodds says, the right-hand side of Sunderland's attack has been no where near the levels of Clarke on the opposite flank, they're also a cause for concern.

With Mason Burstow returning to Chelsea this summer at the end of his loan spell, scorer of just one goal during his temporary stint at the club, that leaves Rusyn as the only forward to have scored last season.

We Are Sunderland looked at why Burstow's loan in greater detail earlier this month and whether he could return to the Stadium of Light, but for the purpose of this analysis, we'll delve deeper into the stats of those still at the club - Rusyn, Luis Hemir Semedo and Eliezer Mayenda.

As the eldest of the three forwards, it's perhaps no surprise that Rusyn looked the most capable of playing week in week out in the Championship. But even then, two goals and one assist in 876 minutes of football, doesn't make for great reading.

Of course you have to factor in the adjustment to a new country, the psychological impact the Ukrainian war his having on him, living without his family for the first part of the campaign and injury problems towards the end of the season.

If we look at Rusyn's xG it perfectly matches up with his goals scored registering at 2.0 from 27 shots. From the shot map below, we see the majority of Rusyn's shots have come from inside the box.

We Are Sunderland: Nazariy Rusyn's shot map for Sunderland last season.Nazariy Rusyn's shot map for Sunderland last season. (Image: StatsBomb)However, it's public knowledge that Rusyn prefers playing off the left of a front three, as he did for Zorya Luhansk in 2022/23, scoring 13 goals. If Jack Clarke is to depart Sunderland this summer, we could see the Ukrainian shifted out to that left-hand side of the pitch and given an opportunity to showcase what he can do.

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Rusyn has shown glimpses of a player being in there and after a full season in English football, adapting to the culture, he's the one you'd expect to kick on next season, if he is to remain on Wearside.

Of the Sunderland players to have played over 600 minutes last season, Rusyn ranks third in terms of expected goals, behind Adil Aouchiche and Bradley Dack.

We Are Sunderland: How Sunderland players (who played over 600 minutes) fared in terms of expected goals.How Sunderland players (who played over 600 minutes) fared in terms of expected goals. (Image: StatsBomb)

An important point to note, Sunderland players who have played more minutes and had more efforts on goal, will have a lower xG. In this instance, Rusyn has an average xG of 0.20 per game, as opposed to Jack Clarke's 0.18, but Sunderland's talisman has had 108 shots in 40 Championship games compared to Rusyn's 27. Bare that in mind.

It's interesting to see Hemir rank fourth on that list. In 23 Championship appearances, he failed to score or assist. From 11 shots, he registered an xG of 1.36, underperforming in that regard.

We Are Sunderland: Luis Hemir Semedo's shot map for Sunderland in 2023/24.Luis Hemir Semedo's shot map for Sunderland in 2023/24. (Image: StatsBomb)Using the shot map above, the majority of Hemir's efforts came from on the right-hand side of the box, his best effort coming against Southampton in the 5-0 win at the Stadium of Light at the start of the season.

The effort, which is pictured below, came in with a high xG of 0.39, one-on-one with Saints' shot stopper Gavin Bazunu.

We Are Sunderland: Hemir's effort against Southampton earlier this season.Hemir's effort against Southampton earlier this season. (Image: StatsBomb)Getting in behind the Southampton back line, it's an opportunity he should have scored. It's fair to say Hemir has struggled since making the move to Wearside, but that being said, impressed head coach Michael Beale in training during the January transfer window, which perhaps played its part in the Portuguese forward remaining at the club for the rest of the campaign.

It was the third, and final Sunderland striker - who is permanently contracted by the club - who left on loan instead. A hamstring injury he picked up on arrival delayed his start to life on Wearside, but Eliezer Mayenda was the prospect who excited Tony Mowbray the most, but he'd play just 186 minutes across eight games before joining Hibernian on loan in January.

We Are Sunderland: Eliezer Mayenda's shot map for Sunderland last season.Eliezer Mayenda's shot map for Sunderland last season. (Image: StatsBomb)Mayenda managed just six shots, registering an xG of 0.60. His lack of minutes on the pitch contributing to the fact he also failed to score or assist.

"We've seen in flashes what Eliezer can do," Mowbray said. "He's got power and speed, and it's just a case of understanding how we play." A clear endorsement of his potential, but one we're yet to see in a red and white shirt.

Like Hemir, Mayenda is set for an important pre-season with the club. His loan move to Hibs hasn't worked out, playing just four times since moving north of the border - clocking up just 105 minutes of game time.

Part of Sunderland's problems up front, has been the chopping and changing of the preferred 'number nine.' Jobe Bellingham was Mike Dodds' preferred choice leading the line - a midfielder by trade - but his stats a clear indicator as to why.

We Are Sunderland: Jobe's shot map for Sunderland in the 2023/24 campaign.Jobe's shot map for Sunderland in the 2023/24 campaign. (Image: StatsBomb)If you compare all four shot maps, Jobe is by far and away the most dangerous of the three who'll be on Sunderland's books next season. That may well be in part due to playing more games than the aforementioned trio, but with seven goals from 57 shots and an average xG of 0.15 per game, he's done what two of the three haven't - which is score.

There'll be plenty of deliberation this summer over Jobe's role moving forward. Is he a striker? Is he a 'number 10'? Is he a box-to-box midfielder? The answer will remain a mystery until a new head coach is appointed. 

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Even if Jobe is viewed as a striker, for arguments sake, Sunderland still need more to work alongside him. 

Take former Sunderland loanee Ellis Simms for example. He scored 13 goals and notched one assist in 46 Championship appearances for Coventry.

A player Sunderland were favourites to sign but opted against it. A decision they'll likely rue.

We Are Sunderland: Ellis Simms' shot map for Coventry City last season.Ellis Simms' shot map for Coventry City last season. (Image: StatsBomb)Looking at the shot map above, we see clear, dangerous efforts from Simms across the six-yard-box and penalty spot area. Something Sunderland's forwards have struggled with in 2023/24.

Again, there's the caveat that Simms has played more games than the likes of Hemir, Mayenda and Rusyn, but a player of his calibre is someone the Black Cats should be targeting this summer. Which is easier said than done given the ambiguity of the model and unknown transfer budget.

To bring the debate full circle, it's genuinely worth considering Dodds' comments about needing more quality across the front line, rather than a designated number nine. Are Sunderland's players not getting shots off in dangerous areas because of the lack of service? Or are they simply not getting into dangerous areas of the pitch?

It's clear from all the statistics and data, that Clarke was Sunderland's most potent winger in the final third. We see from his key passes and assists in the image below, how often he found a red and white shirt in the middle.

We Are Sunderland: While Clarke's goals may have won Sunderland an abundance of points last season, it's clear from the low xG of the resulting shots from his crosses, that his chances created haven't necessarily been clear cut for strikers on the receiving end.

On the image above we were able to filter out the key passes into Jobe, Mayenda, Rusyn and Burstow, with Clarke unable to find Hemir with a key pass or an assist.

It makes for interesting reading if we then look at the right-hand side of the pitch. Chris Rigg was unable to find any of the strikers with key passes or assists, including Jobe in that bracket. Neither could Romaine Mundle in the 11 games he featured in.

Which leaves us with Patrick Roberts and Abdoullah Ba operating on the right. While the former of those endured a difficult season by his usual standards, he made nine key passes into Jobe, Rusyn and Mayenda - not finding Hemir.

We Are Sunderland: Patrick Roberts' key passes into Sunderland's strikers in 2023/24.Patrick Roberts' key passes into Sunderland's strikers in 2023/24. (Image: StatsBomb)Again, like Clarke, the resulting xG of the resulting shots from his passes, registered a low xG. 

As for Ba, he made just six key passes into Burstow, Hemir and Jobe - grabbing an assist against against Stoke City for Burstow's header.

We Are Sunderland: Abdoullah Ba's key passes and assist in Sunderland's 2023/24 campaign which found strikers.Abdoullah Ba's key passes and assist in Sunderland's 2023/24 campaign which found strikers. (Image: StatsBomb)As we see from the image above, Ba's passes found players in better positions in terms of xG but it returned just one goal. It's clear, the wide areas of Sunderland's attack need an improvement, backed up by Sunderland's wingers having just three assists for strikers last season. 


When Clarke was out injured, Sunderland looked void of any impetus and outlet. In Dodds' final 13 games in charge, the Black Cats scored just seven goals, at home they scored just twice in seven games.

Perhaps the main takeaway from Dodds' comments about number nines, is quality. There has to be an agreement that the current crop of forwards are not near the standard required to finish in the top-six - yet - while there also needs to be an acceptance that the right-hand side of the pitch has under delivered. After all, the proof is in the pudding. Sunderland finished just six points off the relegation places.

Their defence was the fifth best in the division, statistically, with all signs pointing towards the top end of the pitch as the area to address.