It’s often said that a team is only as good as its strikers and for Sunderland, over the course of the last 12 months, that has very much been the case.

In what felt like the blink of an eye following their return to the Championship in 2022, Sunderland went from possessing, potentially, one of the best attacking forces in the division, to now, statistically, possessing one of the weakest.

In the opening month of their Championship return, Sunderland had their very own version of an SAS strike-force, rebranded and repackaged but equally as devastating in the shape of Ross Stewart and Ellis Simms. Stewart had arrived in the Championship on the back of a breathtaking campaign in League One which spearheaded Sunderland’s promotion charge, including a memorable strike in the play-off final over Wycombe Wanderers. Simms, meanwhile, joined on loan from Everton after promising loan spells with Blackpool and Hearts.

Upon their first start in tandem with one another at Bristol City’s Ashton Gate, it seemed like a match made in heaven.

Simms scored twice as Stewart grabbed the winner in front of a delirious away end as Sunderland were firmly up and running back in the second tier, riding the wave of momentum afforded to them by that Wembley success three months previous.

Between them, Stewart and Simms played 13 combined games of a possible 14 in that opening month of the season where they contributed a combined eight goals. Supplemented by the likes of Jack Clarke and Patrick Roberts on either wing, and with Alex Pritchard and the eventual emergence of superstar Amad Diallo, Sunderland’s attacking prowess had the Championship on notice.

And yet so swiftly had Sunderland imprinted that status upon the league, it was taken away. Sunderland’s first fixture after the transfer window had closed was a trip to North East neighbours Middlesbrough where Stewart, named in the starting line-up, was forced to withdraw shortly before kick-off after pulling a thigh muscle in the warm-up. It was the beginning of a torrid 12 months for the Scotsman who would make just eight more appearances for Sunderland before being sold to Southampton last summer.

The onus then fell on Simms as a lone striker, a burden he initially struggled with after drawing five consecutive blanks without Stewart alongside him. But then came the resurgence, with four goals in six games heading into the New Year, two of which came with the returning Stewart back in the team, as Sunderland threatened the Championship’s promotion race.

It was form which alerted the attention of parent club Everton who were struggling in the Premier League under Frank Lampard. One phone call later at the beginning of January 2023 and Simms was headed back to Merseyside, leaving Sunderland with a gap to plug in their attack. The positive caveat to Simms’ return was that Stewart was back in the fold and appeared keen to make up for lost time.

Stewart marked his return from a three month injury lay-off with a goal at Hull City, the first of five consecutive games on the scoresheet in all competitions. With Simms gone, Stewart took on the mantle of lone striker under Tony Mowbray with the highly fluid Clarke, Amad and Roberts tucked in behind creating a menacing front four as was on display in the reverse fixture with Middlesbrough at the Stadium of Light in late January where Sunderland cruised to a 2-0 victory with Stewart, again, on the scoresheet and the front four in mesmerising form.

Sunderland travelled to Fulham in the fourth round of the FA Cup the following week in what still proves to be their biggest setback since promotion when it comes to their attacking options after Stewart ruptured his achilles at Craven Cottage. Having gone from possessing two strikers who had scored a combined nine goals in 11 games together at the start of the month, Sunderland were now without a fit and recognised striker in the building with just days of the transfer window remaining.

Ross Stewart (right) and Ellis Simms (left) forged a strong partnership for SunderlandRoss Stewart (right) and Ellis Simms (left) forged a strong partnership for Sunderland

Joe Gelhardt’s arrival from Leeds United was meant to supplement Stewart in the wake of Simms’ return to Everton as sporting director Kristjaan Speakman endeavoured to ease concerns over Sunderland’s lack of a centre-forward, but it’s a moment the club have yet to truly recover from despite reaching the play-offs that season.

With Stewart out until the end of the summer at least, and Gelhardt and Amad returning to their parent clubs, Speakman and the club’s recruitment team set about filling the holes left in attack last summer, but their reward was just three goals from four acquisitions last season – a feat which cannot be allowed to happen again this time around.

This week, we will be taking you through a different area of the squad, looking at their individual contract situations and assessing where new head coach Régis Le Bris needs to strengthen. We'll even throw in a few suggestions of potential names they could look at, just for fun!

In the final part of We Are Sunderland’s scouting series, we're taking a look at strikers.


READ MORE: What is going wrong with Sunderland's attack?


Nazariy Rusyn

As referenced in our penultimate scouting series on wingers, Nazariy Rusyn’s position this season is something that new head coach Le Bris is going to have to identify throughout this pre-season period.

Both previous head coach Michael Beale and interim head coach Mike Dodds have intimated the Ukrainian may be better suited to operating from a wide left position of the field, similar to where Clarke plays in attack. Should that be the case then expectations on the 25-year-old should be tempered in accordance given where his place in the pecking order would be unless Clarke were to leave this summer.

That said, until Sunderland address the glaring need for a centre-forward, Rusyn represents the best options to date in filling that void. His goals against both Preston North End and Middlesbrough represented something others did not necessarily possess in terms of timing a run towards the front post and not being afraid to shoot from distance. His off-the-ball movement was another trait which puts him at the top of the list of Sunderland’s current strikers to lead the line – the hope being that some of those unchecked runs into the channels will be more in sync with his team-mates after a full season under his belt with the club.

Nazariy Rusyn scored two goals in his first full season with SunderlandNazariy Rusyn scored two goals in his first full season with Sunderland (Image: Ian Horrocks)

Rusyn enjoyed a successful period with Ukrainian Premier Liga side Zorya Lugansk where he scored 21 goals in 49 appearances – only bettered by Dinipro’s Artem Dovbyk who was also rewarded with a move last summer to Spain’s La Liga. But where Dovbyk adjusted to life with Girona exceptionally well, Rusyn struggled with life in the Championship with Sunderland.

While there are mitigating circumstances in Rusyn’s struggles, particularly with off-field influences, the 25-year-old’s return of two goals in 21 appearances will do little to convince supporters he can lead the line adequately next season.


Luis Hemir Semedo

Aesthetically, Luis Hemir Semedo represents the closest resemblance to the attributes Stewart brought to the Stadium of Light in being a focal point and a lone striker. In practice, however, the Portuguese youngster was levels below Stewart in his first campaign – which was also likely to be the case.

Hemir was brought in from Benfica B for a fairly sizable six-figure sum on a five-year deal. The 20-year-old had no prior senior experience in Portugal as very-much aligns with Sunderland’s ‘up and coming’ philosophy. The issue in that regard was that Sunderland needed a ready-made striker last summer to go into the new Championship season, something they require even more so now.

Hemir’s record at European youth level is impressive. With 33 goals in 79 appearances in Lisbon, it’s easy to see why Speakman and the rest of Sunderland’s recruitment team were high on the potential of the young striker. But the nature of the Championship is a different beast to the culture at academy level in Portugal, something Hemir found difficult to adjust to in his first full season at the Stadium of Light.

"I went back and watched all his clips at Benfica and in his defence, it's a completely different style of play,” interim head coach Dodds explained in March. “I sat down with him at one point early in the season and we were talking about match loads in terms of distance covered, sprint distance and he just couldn't believe what we were asking him to do.

"In terms of shifting his mentality, that's been really important. He's a good kid and he's desperate to be successful here, and I think he's got the mentality now of having to do those things before he can do the things that he likes.

"What we're asking him to do is very different to his upbringing in football but the one thing I would say is - he can do it."

Hemir made 23 appearances in total last season, the most of any of Sunderland’s four summer recruits at centre-forward, including being handed a start in the opening day defeat to Ipswich Town, but he failed to register a single goal or assist in that time, recording an expected goals (xG) tally of just 1.36.


Luis Hemir's shot map for Sunderland in the 2023-24 seasonLuis Hemir's shot map for Sunderland in the 2023-24 season (Image: StatsBomb)

It was in contrast to what we saw from Hemir in pre-season where he looked every bit of the promising young centre-forward as billed with a number of goals to his name where he demonstrated a threat in the air.

Things may have been different for Hemir had he found an early goal – the biggest chance coming as a substitute in the 5-0 win over Southampton when racing clear of the defensive only to be denied by goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu one-on-one.

After Mowbray felt compelled to persist with the Portuguese, Hemir found himself out of the squad under Beale having featured in just 21 minutes of his tenure on Wearside. Hemir was handed a lifeline under Dodds with starts against Norwich City, Leicester City and Queens Park Rangers but rarely did he look like breaking his goalscoring duck in what ended up being a season of torment in his new surroundings.

Le Bris’ background in developing young players will encourage the club’s hierarchy that he can unlock Hemir’s potential, but whether that will be with Sunderland this season or not remains to be seen as the club could consider offering the 20-year-old a loan move to rebuild his confidence.


READ MORE: Inside Sunderland's striker struggles, winger creativity and lack of quality


Eliezer Mayenda

A loan move is exactly what the club did with another of last summer’s recruits in Eliezer Mayenda.

The Spaniard, like Hemir, arrived with limited senior experience with just 16 appearances to his name in France with FC Sochaux in Ligue 2 and the Coupe de France, but was also hit with an untimely injury upon his arrival when suffering a hamstring problem in his first week of training. It was an injury which kept him sidelined for a number of months as he had to wait until November for his debut.

In total, Mayenda made just eight appearances for Sunderland last season with only one of those coming as a starter in Mowbray’s penultimate game in charge of the club against Huddersfield Town. Like Hemir, he failed to register a single goal or assist for the club before he was sent out to Hibernian on loan in the January transfer window.

But the 19-year-old was one of the four summer additions to receive praise and endorsement from Mowbray during his time with the club, having felt encouraged by the potential he saw in Mayenda in training.

“Eliezer looks so exciting to me,” said Mowbray. “I was just watching the last bit of a small-sided game in training with one of the coaches, and he is super powerful and dynamic.

“He’s got a rocket in his left foot, and I think he is going to catch a few people out when we put him on the pitch. I think the fans should be excited by how dynamic he is.

"We'll have to wait and see, and I shouldn't really be building him up when he hasn't had a chance to show it on the pitch yet, but I'm just telling you what I'm watching in training - strong, quick, powerful. Hopefully, he can do the damage when he's fit and available.”

Eliezer Mayenda action map in his only start for Sunderland against Huddersfield TownEliezer Mayenda action map in his only start for Sunderland against Huddersfield Town (Image: Wyscout)

Those attributes are certainly something which has been missing up front for Sunderland over the last 18-months since Stewart’s injury at Fulham, but there is a reluctance to suggest Mayenda can return from his loan spell and suddenly emerge as Sunderland’s outright centre-forward this season.

Mayenda made just four appearances on loan in Scotland, two in the Premiership and two in the Scottish Cup but only one of those as a starter in what turned out to be an unsuccessful spell.

“It did feel like a strange move, even though he was a quite a highly rated young man, but it didn’t really pan out that way,” Hibs Observers Liam Bryce told We Are Sunderland on Mayenda’s loan.

“This might not seem the most analytical insight, but I can’t really remember anything he did in the game [he started]. He’d only been there a couple of weeks, so it was a difficult one for him to come into, but the game kind of passed him by.

“His other appearances, it would be pretty harsh to make a judgement on because he came on in games that were sometimes already lost.”

Quite how Sunderland deal with the feedback of Mayenda’s loan at Easter Road remains to be seen, but should they bring in another centre-forward as is craved this summer, another loan move may not be out of the question for Mayenda – one which will ideally yield more success for both the club and the player.


Alternative options

Owing to the struggles of the players brought to Wearside last summer, Sunderland were routinely forced into considering other options at centre-forward last season with the main beneficiary being Jobe Bellingham.

Jobe was utilised in several positions throughout the season, but was most prominently utilised as a striker where he rewarded that decision as he ended the season as Sunderland’s second-highest goalscorer.

Jobe is another player who is the subject of significant interest from the Premier League with Sunderland believed to have already rebuffed approaches for the 18-year-old this summer following a breakout debut year at the Stadium of Light.

Jobe suggested following a win over Cardiff City, in which he scored and assisted by winning a penalty, that he was undecided as to where his best position was, with interim head coach Dodds insisting he ‘can be anything he wants to be.' But cementing a definitive position will be high on Sunderland’s list this pre-season, an issue head coach Le Bris believes he has already determined when addressing the media for the first time earlier in the week.

Regardless of whether that decision from Le Bris is to use Jobe as a centre-forward or not, Sunderland will still need to add to their ranks, or get more from some of their alternative options.


Jobe Bellingham's positions played for Sunderland in 2023-24Jobe Bellingham's positions played for Sunderland in 2023-24 (Image: StatsBomb)

Adil Aouchiche is another who was thrown into the centre forward role on occasion last season, including the final two games against Watford and Sheffield Wednesday. But while the Frenchman offered an element of guile and intricacy in some of Sunderland’s build-up play, the overriding evidence suggested it was a position the 21-year-old was uncomfortable with.

Aouchiche played as a centre-forward on a number of occasions during his time in France with Saint Etienne and Paris Saint-Germain, but never under Le Bris at Lorient which may be telling as to whether he will be considered, even as an option, in the centre-forward role.

Aouchiche will be one of the more interesting prospects this season owing to his existing relationship with Le Bris, despite only making 13 appearances under him for Lorient. The Frenchman made four goal contributions in his first season in English football but was ranked third in the Sunderland squad when it comes to xG and expected assists (xA) which suggests there is plenty of potential still to tap into in the attacking third should Le Bris be able to unlock it.

Jewison Bennette remains something of an unknown quantity at the Stadium of Light given his lack of game time over the two years he has been at the club.

The Costa Rican made a notable impact in just his second appearance for the club in 2022 when coming off the bench to execute a fine equaliser for Sunderland at Watford, one of 18 total appearances that season with only one coming as a starter in the third round of the FA Cup at Shrewsbury Town.

Bennette was included in the first team squad just twice last season before going out on loan in January to Greek Super League side Aris. Like Mayenda, however, Bennette’s loan move did not necessarily go accordingly as he was afforded just two 45-minute cameos.

The 20-year-old is one of the fringe first team players to have demonstrated a willingness when selected for the club’s academy, with six goal contributions in his 10 appearances, and he arrived with plenty of pedigree from South American side Herediano. Bennette also has two goals in 15 senior international appearances which, again, lends itself to a belief there is potential in the young forward.

Positionally, Bennette has more often been used on the wings but when analysing his two goals for Sunderland against Watford and Fulham, they display much more of a striker’s instinct than perhaps a wide player is given credit for.

Jewison Bennette has returned to Sunderland this summerJewison Bennette has returned to Sunderland this summer (Image: Ian Horrocks)

The Costa Rican received praise from former head coach Beale when going out on loan, with the club’s intentions to utilise him upon his return this pre-season.

“Jewi is a player that I’ve got a lot of hope for in the future if I’m honest, but he’s got a need to play,” said Beale. “I came in and the boy was probably looking to get a loan to give himself some regular football. But, come pre-season, Jewi will be back in the building.

“I’ve seen a lot that I like with Jewi so he’s a player for the future for us, for sure. It's not a loan to send someone away, it’s a loan to allow someone to play and get some oxygen to build up his confidence again.”

Quite whether that loan will have built up any confidence remains to be seen, but Bennette is one of a number of players throughout the squad who fall into the category of needing a positive pre-season to help determine what the next phase of their career looks like at the Stadium of Light.


READ MORE: Inside Mason Burstow's Sunderland loan move: Why it failed and will he be back?


Academy options

Despite their success in the 2023-24 season, Sunderland’s academy is not necessarily blessed with burgeoning talent at centre-forward, at least to the point they would be considered a viable option to move up to the first team environment.

Ukrainian youngster Timur Tutierov registered 13 appearances for Graeme Murty’s side across their Premier League 2 campaign following the move from Kolos Kovalivka, but not all of those 13 appearances came at centre-forward.

Tutierov scored three times last season, that despite not being involved in nine of the first 11 squads of the under-21s campaign. But only one of those goals came as a centre-forward, with the others when operating from the wing as the club continue to develop and nurture the Ukrainian. Although he still has a year remaining on his current deal with Sunderland, it’s unlikely that Tutierov will make the step up to the senior squad this season.

The same is true of 17-year-old Trey Ogunsuyi.

The Belgian signed his first professional deal with the club last year until 2026 and went on to score six times in 24 appearances across Sunderland’s youth levels, including twice in the Premier League 2 play-offs while also scoring for Belgium’s under-18s.

Ogunsuyi is still in the primitive phase of his development with the club and although the likes of Chris Rigg and Tom Watson have jumped age groups, Ogunsuyi remains raw in that aspect, where another season under the stewardship of Murty in the academy will likely reap its rewards more than a premature call up to the first team set-up.


Transfer options

Strikers are the most sought-after commodity in football which often makes it difficult to do business. Take Sunderland’s interest in Bournemouth forward Kieffer Moore in January, for example. The 31-year-old was made available on loan in the winter transfer window and Sunderland were one of at least three teams interested in securing his signature along with Ipswich Town and Cardiff.

Sporting director Speakman remarked at the time how certain transfer deals simply don’t add up financially, as Moore eventually returned to Portman Road where he would go on to provide a significant impact for Kieran McKenna’s side, scoring seven times in 18 appearances to help Ipswich to promotion back to the Premier League.

Although, it’s understood, Ipswich paid a handsome financial package to Bournemouth to land Moore, he repaid their faith in abundance with his contribution in the second half of the season, with the club now able to benefit from the riches of the Premier League – how Sunderland could have done with that kind of impact.

Moore’s availability remains one of intrigue this summer, with Cardiff again linked with the 31-year-old along with Sheffield United ahead of their return to the Championship. Moore has one year remaining on his deal at the Vitality Stadium but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility the Welshman becomes available either on loan or on a permanent basis before the end of this summer’s transfer window.

A move for Moore would be a step outside of Sunderland’s parameters of signing younger players to develop, but with both Le Bris and Speakman this week hinting at the addition of greater experience this summer, Moore is a player who could be on Sunderland’s radar and is a player who would represent, on paper at least, the closest mould of Stewart the club would have since his exit.

Kieffer Moore made a big impact during his loan move to Ipswich Town from AFC BournemouthKieffer Moore made a big impact during his loan move to Ipswich Town from AFC Bournemouth

If Sunderland are to stick to their philosophy when it comes to their recruitment, Divin Mubama ticks a number of boxes which will interest the club’s hierarchy.

Mubama is now a free agent after his West Ham United contract expired, despite the Premier League club attempting to renew terms with the 19-year-old in recent weeks. Mubama’s decision to leave the London Stadium would point towards a potential deal in the pipeline elsewhere for the young striker, perhaps where he perceives more first team opportunities will become available to him.

Mubama was highly regarded at West Ham and possesses an exceptional record at youth level and his brief senior experience with 59 goals in 109 total appearances. The most noteworthy of those goals came in the Europa Conference League last-16 tie with AEK Larnaca before forming part of the squad which would go on to lift the Conference League trophy at the Fortuna Arena in Czech Republic against Fiorentina.

But while Mubama’s flirtation with the West Ham senior squad will appeal, it’s his undeniable record at youth level in recent years which will grab the attention of Sunderland’s decision makers, particularly now that such a potential asset is available on a free transfer.

Sunderland have demonstrated more than most in the Championship how they will provide opportunities to players regardless of age, something which should appeal to Mubama as he plans the next step in his career.

Speaking after his exploits in European competition for West Ham, former first team coach Kevin Nolan described the 19-year-old as a ‘good finisher’ with ‘hard work and energy’ and an ability to hold the ball up – all attributes Sunderland have missed at the top end of the pitch in the last year.

Divin Mubama is now a free agent after leaving West Ham UnitedDivin Mubama is now a free agent after leaving West Ham United (Image: PA Wire)

Had Sunderland had their own way last summer, they would likely have seen Fulham's Jay Stansfield put pen to paper on a loan deal and would have seen much more product for their investment than was seen from the four players who eventually arrived at the club. 

Stansfield, however, opted for a move to Birmingham City instead where, despite a 12-goal haul in the league, he was unable to prevent Birmingham from dropping into League One.

Stansfield's progression last season, building on the nine goals scored with Exeter City in League One the previous year, shows Sunderland are still capable of identifying players with potential who can produce in the here and now. Had Sunderland had a 12-goal striker leading their forward line last season it's fair to assume they would have finished considerably higher up the division given the fine margins in a number of their games.

Stansfield returns to Craven Cottage this summer where he still has three-years remaining on his deal and boss Marco Silva recently hinted the 21-year-old will have a part to play in the Premier League this season. 

“Everything we planned, apart from the collective goal of Birmingham which was not what we wanted, was a box [ticked]," Silva told the Evening Standard.

“He played the season before in League One [with Exeter City], and to be able to give a step forward in the Championship and be an important piece in the attack-line and score important goals [was pleasing]. Jay achieved all the important things.

“Now is the moment for him to come back and be one of the players in our attacking line for next season.”

Stansfield has scored an abundance of goals for Fulham at academy level and his endeavours in the Football League over the last two seasons will encourage those at Craven Cottage he is ready to prove his worth in the Premier League. That is a stance which could change, however, as we saw with Chelsea and Mason Burstow last summer. 

While moves for Mubama and Stansfield make a lot of sense, and the potential to develop Premier League-level assets is evident, the duo should not be the sole focus of Sunderland’s attacking recruitment this summer.

Sunderland need a high-profile signing in the centre-forward position and someone to finally replace the void left by Stewart to take away some of the burden on Clarke. It’s now been three transfer windows since Simms arrived to join forces with Stewart and the club’s hierarchy can ill-afford another window to pass them by without addressing the issue left by both.