Something I never thought I'd say about Sunderland star Jack Clarke

The Black Cats winger has been one of the standout performers of the Championship season so far.
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At what point does reliance become over-reliance? Are you or I, for instance, overly-reliant on our lungs, on account of needing them to stay alive, or are those spongy air sacks simply doing their job, pumping away like pillowy pistons, as key components in a much greater whole? Answers on a postcard, please.

Once again, I find myself writing about Jack Raymond Clarke. It is becoming quite the regular occurrence. Then again, it is also remarkably difficult to talk about Sunderland Association Football Club without mentioning the irrepressible pipe cleaner in some capacity. His influence is ubiquitous; his attacking threat, invaluable; his alice band, really growing on me as the weeks drift by.

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But do the Black Cats lean on Clarke too much? It is a question that has been asked time and time again, especially in recent months when the simmering panic of a potential January exit reared its unwelcome head more than once. As the likes of West Ham and Lazio circled like fattened, avaricious vultures, there were many on Wearside who simply could not foresee an immediate future for Michael Beale's side in which they were able to pose a functioning attacking threat without the winger posted out on the left flank.

And you can understand why. So far this season, Clarke has registered 13 goals and four assists in 30 Championship outings. Of those 17 contributions, eight have been decisive in affecting the outcome of matches, and without that octet, Sunderland would be a full 10 points worse off than they currently are. Were it not for Clarke, the Black Cats would be 15th, just six points clear of the bottom three.

Or maybe they wouldn't be. After all, this is just counterfactual nonsense, the cherry-picking of digits to sketch out ramifications on a timeline that doesn't exist. Perhaps Sunderland would have been doomed this season in Clarke's fictional absence. Perhaps Adil Aouchiche would have been given an extended run in the side and transformed himself into the second coming of Zinedine Zidane. It seems unlikely, but the point is, we'll never know.

What we do know, however, is that of the 41 Championship goals Sunderland have scored this season, their talismanic wide man has been involved in 41.5% of them. Now, on the surface, that feels like a shockingly high proportion. Clarke is but one man, magnificent though he may be, and yet here he is, carrying almost half of the Black Cats' creative output on his slender shoulders.

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But then you look a little closer, and you begin to realise that, actually, it might not be such an anomalous relationship after all. Take Adam Armstrong, for instance, who has been involved in 47.3% of Southampton's goals this season, or Morgan Whittaker, who has had a direct hand in 45.8% of Plymouth Argyle's.

There is seemingly no correlation between the strength of a side and their tendency to look to one specific player for inspiration either. Just behind Sunderland in this particular regard are Leeds United and Leicester City, two teams who harbour ambitions of automatic promotion, and who have heavily benefited from the individual excellence of Crysencio Summerville and Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall, respectively.

Which brings us back to that lingering question; are Sunderland overly-reliant on Clarke, or do they just happen to have a very, very good player on their hands who they know they can rely upon in tricky predicaments? Is that, ultimately, not what he is in the starting XI to do?

In truth, as with a lot of complex things in this life, it is probably a little of the former, a little of the latter. Clarke is, and will continue to be, integral to Sunderland and their temperamental play-off hopes, but equally, for the time being at least, there is nothing wrong with that. Perhaps in the summer, when he is broadly expected to depart the Stadium of Light, his omnipotence will become a matter of grave concern, but right now, it should be celebrated.

Others need to pull their weight and contribute more, granted, but there is nothing wrong with having a star player, especially when that star shines as brightly as Clarke does.

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