Pitchside

How Connor Wickham became Europe’s in-form striker

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Defeats to Norwich, Liverpool, West Ham, Tottenham and Everton were supposed to end Sunderland's seven-year stint in the Premier League. Five consecutive losses that would all but see them succumb to relegation, despite Gus Poyet's impressive work in the Stadium of Light hotseat. The Uruguayan had guided his side to the Capital One Cup final, but the exertions of his players seemingly took the wind out of their sails as the Blacks Cats appeared to be running on empty.

Going 1-0 down after two minutes against Manchester City could well have been enough to seal their fate, but the players refused to capitulate and rallied at the Etihad Stadium to secure a 2-2 draw. One point could even have been three had Vito Mannone not allowed Samir Nasri’s effort to squirm past him to draw City level late on.

Nevertheless, a positive result at the home of one of the title favourites boosted morale, and not a moment too soon. Poyet’s side followed the draw up with wins against Chelsea and Cardiff; victories that lifted them out of the relegation zone on goal difference, and they still have a game in hand.

Key to their recent resurgence has been young striker Connor Wickham. The frontman was supposedly not quite Premier League quality after signing from Ipswich at the age of 18 in 2011. Showing plenty of potential in the Championship, it remained to be seen whether he could replicate his performances in England’s top tier.

Following his arrival at the Stadium of Light, Wickham made just nine league starts under Steve Bruce, Martin O’Neill and Paolo Di Canio during their reigns at the helm and was often a substitute under the stewardship of the trio. Suffering a crisis in confidence, and rarely used by Poyet, the 21-year-old was loaned out to Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds earlier this season.

In the Championship, Wickham began to find form again, netting eight goals and providing a further three in 16 appearances before being recalled after Steven Fletcher suffered an injury and Jozy Altidore continued to plod along in substandard form. Starting six of their last seven league games, missing only the loss to Spurs, the England youngster has gone some way to ensuring the starting spot up front remains his own.

Seven points from the last nine available have been largely down to the exploits of Wickham, who has scored five of Sunderland’s last nine league goals. His expoits in and around the 18-yard box means he scored the most goals in the Premier League in April (five), while only Sevilla’s Kevin Gameiro (six) can better his return this month across Europe’s top five leagues.

In the seven games since his return to Sunderland - stemming from the 2-1 defeat to Liverpool - Wickham is Sunderland’s highest rated player (7.34), with Marcos Alonso (7.28) closest to matching that figure in the same period. Evidently, if Sunderland are still a Premier League team come the end of the season, much of that will have been down to Wickham.

However, praise must also be aimed in the direction of Poyet for bringing out the best in the burly striker. Consecutive loan moves may have seen Wickham feel unwelcome at the club, but the morale-boosting performances in the Championship, particularly with Sheffield Wednesday, have seen him return to the Premier League with aplomb. The Black Cats boss challenged the young frontman to continue his form and he has stepped up to the challenge.

His last six starts have seen the player average more shots per game (2.7) than he had in his nine starts (2.0) under Bruce, O’Neill and Di Canio. With five goals under Poyet compared to one under the aforementioned trio, Wickham’s confidence in his ability has clearly increased, benefitting both the player and team. Accordingly, his conversion rate has improved under Poyet (31.3%) compared to previous seasons (5.6%), and so has his shot accuracy (50% up from 27.8%).

With confidence high, Wickham understandably wants to get on the ball more and so his number of touches per game has risen with Poyet in charge (37.3 from 34.3). When a player is firing on all cylinders, they want to maximise the rich vein of form and be on the ball as much as possible to maintain this purple patch and the striker is profiting with the Uruguayan at the helm.

As a teenager, he had the physical attributes to succeed in the English game. Though he took time to acclimitise to the rigours of the Premier League, Poyet has gone a long way to improving his confidence and both Wickham and Sunderland are reaping the rewards with three matches of their season remaining.

All statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com, where you can find yet more stats, including live in-game data and unique player and team ratings.

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