There is no doubt that this summer has been simultaneously one of the most interesting and confusing that I can recall for the club. A comprehensive restructure has been enacted, with scouts of international renown brought in to deliver a brave new approach to player recruitment. A huge number of names have been linked with us, a large number of signings are already in place, and although not many of us truthfully know whether they are actually any good or not, it should certainly be interesting finding out.
Of course, it’s not the only time in recent years we have set about rebuilding the squad during a summer transfer window. In fact, I’d argue we have done it too many times since promotion in 2007 – though after the mediocrity of last season, I would certainly accept we had little choice but to do it again this summer.
However, moving towards the start of the season (and the last month of the transfer window), it does need to be put into some perspective.
So far, we have signed eight players this summer.
Two seasons ago, Steve Bruce signed eleven new players, wasting the bulk of the golden opportunity provided by the sales of Bent and Henderson on players who didn’t fit any sort of pattern, and who in many cases we have either already made a loss on, or are now unable to sell.
After promotion, Roy Keane brought in twelve players in the summer – again with no discernible pattern to what he was trying to achieve. Then he proceeded to sign another four in that season’s January transfer window. The season before that, of course, he memorably signed six players in one evening.
So even if, as is being widely reported, we intend to sign another three players, the scale of the changes is far from unprecedented.
Moving from quantity to quality, I think that most of the new signings are interesting – for example Valentin Roberge and Modibo Diakite must surely be an improvement on Titus Bramble and Matt Kilgallon. David Moberg Karlsson and El Hadji Ba could well have a good future ahead of them. Will Jozy Altidore’s future scoring record resemble his record in Holland last season – or his record with Hull a few years ago? I have some concerns on that one, I’m afraid. Furthermore, some of them look positively exciting: I thought Cabral was superb in Hong Kong, and Emanuele Giaccherini, as an established Italian international, is the sort of signing we could only have dreamed of five years ago, and who will really fit in with Paolo Di Canio’s model.
Yet, I have a nagging but strong concern that significantly more is very clearly needed if we are to move into at least a comfortable mid table position this coming season. My concern isn’t around the players we have signed – it’s around those we haven’t.
Am I being unduly pessimistic, forged by years of false hopes supporting Sunderland?
Well, at the end of last season, I reckon our strongest side, everyone fit, was something like this:
Gardner, O'Shea, Brown, Rose
Johnson, Larsson, N'Diaye, McClean
Right now, I reckon it is something like this:
Gardner, O'Shea, Brown, Colback
Johnson, Larsson, Cabral, Giaccherini
So, in other words we are significantly weaker in the goalkeeping and left back positions, having lost our two best players last season, and although Cabral is probably closer to the finished article than Alfred N’Diaye, the disappointing departure of the big Frenchman (who at least looked to get forward) means that we are no more creative in midfield. Granted, as I wrote in a previous blog, the reemergence of Wes Brown is a huge boost that was not available to us last season, but we are now without Steven Fletcher for some time. We have clearly strengthened our attacking options with Giaccherini, but our problems last season were not the lack of options, it was the lack of ability of those behind them to make use of them.
To put it bluntly, I’m far from convinced that our starting eleven is any stronger right now than it was when we finished fourth bottom last season. Improved fitness had a notable improvement on our sense of urgency in Hong Kong, but that will only go so far in pushing us up the league table.
Of course, I appreciate that the lack of signings in these areas is not for the want of trying. Also, there is the best part of a month to go, and the links to various interesting names continue.However, hearing Di Canio talk of how much Craig Gardner has improved at right back during the close season, and reading Sebastian Larsson being put before the press to tell the world how he will be much better in the centre of midfield than he was last season, sends a shiver down the spine. Jack Colback leaving, without the left back position being sorted, would be a further blow.
At the end of last season, ask a typical Sunderland fan what their hopes for the transfer window and I imagine the most common response would be “two full backs and a creative midfielder”. It would certainly have been mine. Ask right now and the same answer would be given.
There are reports that Di Canio is still looking for three new players before the end of the transfer window.
I really hope that that is the case, and that he gets them – in which case, we could well have the basis of a top half side this coming season. Until that happens, however, this ‘revolution’ remains one that hasn’t yet touched our areas of most pressing need.