When fighting to avoid relegation, a trustworthy striker is crucial

by Ben Cullimore

It’s often said that the difference between relegation and safety is a good striker, and in previous seasons that’s certainly been the case.

Whilst a well-balanced, organised and confident squad is needed from front to back, teams fighting to avoid the drop more often than not rely on the prowess of one lone forward who, when the going gets tough, can make the difference for them with game-changing performances.

Examining the last few years shows just how important a gifted and reliable striker can be.

Last season, after flirting with relegation for the previous three campaigns, it finally looked as if Sunderland were going to drop back down to the Championship, but Jermain Defoe proved to be a priceless acquisition.

The former England international bagged 15 goals for his side, helping to keep them marginally ahead of Newcastle United and send their bitter rivals down instead.

 

Whilst the Magpies exhibited problems all over the pitch, it was up front where they couldn’t quite make enough of an impact.

Aleksandar Mitrović finished the season as the club’s top goalscorer with nine, whilst Papiss Cissé, who had been so impressive the previous year, managed to bag just three.

It was the first time since their return to the Premier League that Newcastle’s most prolific finisher failed to score more than 10 league goals, and it would prove to be their undoing.

It was a similar situation for Hull City during the 2014-15 campaign.

Nikica Jelavić led the way with eight goals from 26 appearances, and whilst they got a late boost from February acquisition Dame N’Doye, the Senegalese striker joined too late to save them from relegation.

Aston Villa, on the other hand, finished three points clear of the Tigers thanks in large part to Christian Benteke, whose 13 league goals put him just one behind Olivier Giroud at the end of the season.

The Belgian, who will now be trying to save Crystal Palace from the drop after suffering a miserable spell at Liverpool, could constantly be relied on to score goals and save points when it mattered the most, and that was no doubt the reason behind Alan Pardew’s decision to sign him in the summer.

Of course, one prolific striker can’t paper over a multitude of cracks, and a dreadful defence will cancel out the effects of any good forward.

Charlie Austin took the Premier League by storm two seasons ago with 18 goals for Queens Park Rangers, but his side’s woeful defensive record (they let in 20 more goals than 19th-place Burnley) saw them finish bottom of the table.

The striker, who was impressing with Southampton before his recent injury, scored all but six of their league goals, and without him they certainly would have been dead and buried far sooner.

With just over one-third of the current season completed, the bottom half of the table remains a tight and unpredictable affair.

Despite sitting marginally behind fellow strugglers Swansea City and Hull, Sunderland have been boosted by three recent wins (all of which saw Defoe hit the back of the net), whilst West Ham United, without a win in their last six league games, are in serious danger due to their struggles in front of goal.

Injury and inconsistency have seen Slaven Bilić’s side slip down the table, with seven of their 17 goals being scored by wing-back Michail Antonio in the absence of a reliable striker.

Simone Zaza is yet to find the back of the net since joining on loan from Juventus and looks set to leave in January, whilst Ashley Fletcher and Jonathan Calleri have similarly struggled to make an impact.

Bilić will be desperately hoping that the recently returned-returned Andy Carroll, who scored in the heavy defeat against Arsenal, can give the Hammers a much-needed boost.

 

The bottom four clubs all have similarly poor defensive records, and who avoids relegation could once again come down to who possesses the most potent striker.

Hull and Swansea have both struggled in front of goal, with the former managing to score just 14 times so far.

Adama Diomandé, arguably their main forward, has only registered two league goals, whilst Dieumerci Mbokani, who scored seven times for Norwich City last year, is yet to find the back of the net.

Swansea find themselves in a similar predicament, indicating just how much they have relied on the likes of Wilfried Bony, Bafétimbi Gomis and, though not an out-and-out striker, André Ayew in recent years.

However, Fernando Llorente has given them reason to cheer with his recent performances, resulting in the Spaniard, who suffered a slow start upon his arrival from Sevilla, scoring four times in his last three games.

Only time will tell if he can help save Swansea from the drop with consistently good performances, but Bob Bradley will be hoping that he is able to strike up a partnership with in-form Gylfi Sigurðsson in the way that Ayew and Gomis did last season when they scored 18 goals between them.

As for Sunderland, Defoe’s impressive performances since joining in 2015 have been widely and rightly praised, and, despite currently sitting bottom of the table, his wonderful eye for goal means that the Black Cats arguably have a chance of avoiding relegation once again.

The former Tottenham striker has already scored eight times in the league, and he seems to be forming an effective partnership with Victor Anichebe.

With no single forward to put their faith in, both Hull and West Ham should be very worried right now.

In years gone by, both have boasted game-changing strikers with the ability to produce magic when required, but, with no one to call on, they currently find themselves at the wrong end of the table and could remain there for the rest of the season if they’re unable to find a solution to their problems.

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