After finishing last season in 13th place, Martin O’Neill will be hoping that he can take the Black Cats to the next level, but all that will depend on the manager’s transfer activity before the big kick off next Saturday. If O’Neill brings in some high calibre signings then the passionate ‘Mackems’ will see challenging for Europe a real possibility. However, with some poor signings then another season in mid-table limbo will be on the cards.
For Sunderland, the last season can be split into three sections. First, there were the uninspiring and lacklustre efforts under Steve Bruce until he was shown the door. Then Martin O’Neill stepped in and rejuvenated the side, as the Black Cats went on a scintillating run until the team ran out of stream resulting in a tired and drab end to the season. But the season did highlight the fact that Sunderland are short of quality in some positions, adding to the importance of this summer’s transfer activity.
So far this summer, perhaps worryingly, it has been all a bit quiet. Only one player has arrived at the Stadium of Light; versatile defender Carlos Cuellar being a welcome addition. But that doesn’t mean that Martin O’Neill hasn’t been busy, with several players leaving the club. Following Michael Turner’s switch to Norwich, a total of seventeen players have been moved on by the club this summer, including the likes of Asamoah Gyan, George McCartney and Craig Gordon.
The mass exodus can show two things. First of all, it means that plenty of money is being freed up in terms of wages. O’Neill and billionaire owner Ellis Short have maintained their believe that they want to bring in ‘quality not quantity’ signings, so by getting rid of several high earning squad players, it could suggest that Sunderland are planning some ambitious and accomplished captures. Secondly, the exodus shows that O’Neill is stepping up the quality in the squad. Players such as Michael Turner have always been steady performers but his exit suggests that steady isn’t good enough. The next few weeks could see some star signings arriving on Wearside.
However, the exodus has no sign of slowing down with some more high profile players expected to leave. Kieran Richardson has expressed his desire to move away from the North East and with one year left on his contract, Sunderland would be looking to get a respectable fee. West Ham are rumoured to have been monitoring the situation with Everton also lining up Richardson as a possible replacement if Leighton Baines was to leave. Ahmed Elmohamady looks set to end his disappointing spell on Wearside, with West Ham again amongst those registering an interest. The Egyptian winger has failed to be a regular starter and with no indication that this is set to change, the decision to sell him will benefit both the player and the club. It would also be no surprise to see some youngsters loaned out to gain some valuable experience. Despite the lack of strikers at the club, Connor Wickham is rumoured to be looking for a loan move to the championship, with old club Ipswich Town leading the chase. A season playing regularly may be the confidence boost that he needs before he attempts to break into Martin O’Neills plans again.
But where do Sunderland need to improve? Defensively, a left back will surely be high on the manager’s shopping list. Although he possesses pace, Richardson lacks the positional sense which a more natural left back would bring. With his determination and grit, Phil Bardsley has cemented his place at right back, while O’Neill may choose to secure another centre back to partner veteran John O’Shea, particularly after Wes Brown picked up an injury during a pre-season game in South Korea. So far this summer, Steven Warnock and James Collins have been heavily linked with reuniting with their former boss. The suggested fee at the time was £4 million for the pair, which, for two experienced Premier League players, would have been a real bargain. Warnock, despite perhaps underperforming recently, would be a welcome addition as an established left back especially with Richardson’s future uncertain. However, it looks like O’Neill will have to look elsewhere for a centre back, following Collins’ return to West Ham.
In terms of the midfield, O’Neill will be looking to add one or two players to an already promising quartet. James McClean’s direct and powerful play helped him become one of the unearthed gems of last season, and after being disappointingly overlooked during Euro 2012 for Ireland, he will be looking to establish himself as one of the league’s best wingers. On the opposite flank, Seb Larsson impressed in his first season with Sunderland, being an ever-reliable performer with some key assists and goals. In the middle of the park, Jack Colback, an academy graduate, hugely impressed last season and will be hoping to repeat his performances this upcoming year. With an already impressive midfield with adequate squad replacements including David Meyler, Craig Gardner and David Vaughan, how will O’Neill look to strengthen it? Aiden McGeady has been earmarked as a possible target and if it were to happen, the tricky Irish winger would be a quality signing. Despite McClean’s remarkable improvement, the club cannot rely on the youngster to perform every single game. If McGeady was to arrive, the competition between the players would perhaps improve McClean’s ability although McGeady’s versatility could mean that they could both be tearing down the wings. Also, a central midfielder with an eye for a goal and a killer pass could be a clever signing in order to link up well with a more defensively minded partner such as Colback or Lee Cattermole.
There is also the welcome problem of where to play Stephane Sessegnon. The silky Benin international was one of the star players last season, and if Sunderland can hold on to him, he will be pivotal to the club’s development. Due to injuries towards the back end of last season, he was often up front by himself, but was largely ineffective. Playing the dynamic creative player just behind the striker may be his best position where he could shine as one of the players of the season. Being linked with Tottenham and Manchester City shows just how highly rated he is; oozing creative flair, creating many chances whilst also possessing a precise shot. He is definitely Sunderland’s player to watch.
There is no doubt where Sunderland need to improve and O’Neill’s actions could make or break the season. After Nicklas Bendtner returned to Arsenal, the Wearsiders are desperately lacking any experienced strikers up front. Ji Dong-Won and Connor Whickham, with three Sunderland goals between them, are both too inexperienced to be relied upon to make an impact while Fraizer Campbell lacks the goals to help propel Sunderland up the table. O’Neill has suggested that he might be after a target man, with Wolves having reportedly rejected a £12million bid from the Black Cats for Steven Fetcher. The Scot, who proved to be one of Wolves’ star performers in the last campaign, certainly fits into the role that O’Neill is after. With seven headed goals last term and an impressive ability to hold up the ball, the possibility of Fletcher spearheading the attack with McClean, Larsson and Sessegnon providing the service is an exciting prospect and one that will surely give Sunderland some much needed goals. Louis Saha would be a smart alternative signing while reports that the club are after Jermain Defoe would suggest that Sunderland are eager to reach the next level.
So with the season fast approaching, Sunderland do have something that they haven’t had for a long time; a manager with their full backing. After his initial impact when he first arrived at the club, O’Neill has slowly been settling down bringing in his own staff as he tries to implement his own style and tactics. With a full pre-season behind his regime and some quality signings, O’Neill could take Sunderland to the next level, something that the Red and White Army have always dreamt about. The summer so far has been full of rumours on social network sites, but it seems like O’Neill will be ready to splash the cash soon. With a fully fit squad and some fresh, ambitious signings, Sunderland have the potential to cement themselves as a top half table team, with the tools to challenge for Europe. Whatever happens in the transfer market, with O’Neill leading the club, it’s set to be one exciting season for the Black Cats.