Sunderland fans are currently reveling in having survived the relegation race while watching hated rival Newcastle see the drop (while Northeast neighbor Middlesbrough made its way back into the top flight). But I would start to get very worried if I were them with the upcoming season looming. The Black Cats are extremely thin after relying on loan players to fill key roles last season and have yet to even add a player in the current transfer window. It gets scarier when the man that led them to safety last season might leave on the verge of the new season with manager Sam Allardyce flirting with the England job. Sunderland rose to the occasion when it mattered most last season, but with what is arguably the most competitive season on paper approaching, the club needs to do much more this summer or risk another anxiety-filled season where it could end up being the laughing stock of the Northeast this time around.
Last Season in Brief
It was not a pretty start to the season for Dick Advocaat’s Sunderland. After leading the club out of yet another relegation race, the Dutchman signed on for another term at the helm (reportedly against his wife’s wishes) and immediately struggled. In fact, Advocaat never even got to see a Sunderland win in the Premier League last season before resigning on October 4 in the middle of the club’s nine-match winless streak to start the season. The Black Cats didn’t record their first league win until 25 October in a 3-0 win against their bitter rivals in Newcastle—three points that fittingly proved to be the difference between relegation and survival after finishing two points higher than the relegated Magpies. New signings Fabio Borini, Jeremain Lens and Younes Kaboul weren’t enough for the side amid the Adam Johnson scandal as it was second-to-last on New Year’s after giving up the most goals in the league (38 in just 19 games). But Allardyce and his winter arrivals (Lamine Kone, Wahbi Khazri and Jan Kirchhoff proved to be just what the club needed to survive as it doubled its first-half win total with six in 2016. Going undefeated in the final six of the season (including 10 of the last 11) secured the club’s safety with Jermain Defoe leading the win with 15 league goals.
The Summer So Far
The club’s summer activity (definitely a lack thereof) is why Sunderland fans need to be worried and why writers and pundits are already lining the club up as a relegation favorite. It’s hard to argue that since Sunderland is the only Premier League side other than Stoke City who has yet to buy this summer. The club’s main focus has been trying to re-sign loan stars DeAndre Yedlin and Yann M’Vila after stellar campaigns last season. But Spurs are reluctant to sell the former Sounders standout while M’Vila’s contract at Rubin Kazan is as confusing as signing Sebastian Coates last season and then loaning him out for two straight seasons.
The only business Sunderland has conducted is as sellers. The club might have even let its most talented player leave for next to nothing after Emanuele Giaccherini returned from an impressive Euros and loan at Bologna to be immediately sold to Napoli for £2 million. While the Black Cats re-signed key starters in Vito Mannone, Patrick van Aanholt and Defoe, they have let Steven Fletcher, Wes Brown, Mikael Mandron, Liam Agnew, Danny Graham and Steve Harper leave on free transfers once their contracts ran out. The only possible explanations for such a quiet summer is either a lack of funds or a hesitancy to buy if Allardyce is just going to leave.
Remaining Summer Business
As it should be, Sunderland’s biggest priorities have been re-signing Yedlin and M’Vila, who could be available on a free transfer in January when his contract at the Russian club. They are two players proven to thrive in the club’s system and were instrumental to last season’s survival run. But the club can’t let that distract it from signing new players to permanent deals with so many players departing, not to mention Dame N’Doye and Ola Toivonen returning to their respective clubs after loans that left a lot to be desired.
Now it looks like the club is suffering at the very positions once filled by 2015/16 departures like Coates, Costel Pantilimon and Connor Wickham. The club lost out on signing James Morrison, James Tomkins and is unlikely to land top targets in Danny Simpson and Andre Ayew. It would be a step in the right direction if the Black Cats could land West Ham striker Diafra Sakho this summer. However, it’s not the area they need to fill most. Lee Cattermole, Seb Larsson and Jack Rodwell are the only central midfielders while an aging defense featuring John O’Shea, Billy Jones and Kaboul is injury-prone and a disaster waiting to happen.
Salary Cap Superstars
- Jermain Defoe–In all honesty, Defoe and van Aanholt are the only players that you should even consider for your fantasy team, and even then there are better options who do the same things even better. But Defoe always manages to be an inexpensive option and proved to be a force last season with 15 Premier League goals, 10 more than any of his teammates despite flipping the switch mostly in 2016. If you still need to fill a forward spot and have limited funds, then it’s difficult to find a better option.
- Patrick van Aanholt – It’s telling that van Aanholt was the club’s third-highest goalscorer as a defender with four Premier League tallies while also adding three assists while rummaging down the left. The Dutchman even saw some time on the wing because of his attacking habits, but his defensive shortcomings are a real turn-off, not to mention he’s on a fragile back-line that rarely sees clean sheets come its way.
- Jordan Pickford – This is a bit of a gamble, but I actually think that Pickford will become the club’s starting goalkeeper this season. The 22-year-old signed a new contract in the winter after returning from a loan at Preston North End, but that hasn’t stopped Manchester United and Tottenham from showing interest. In order not to lose a promising young keeper, Allardyce (or whoever is manager) will have to play him, and he’ll be a cheap option as your second keeper.
- Jermain Defoe – Let’s not kid ourselves that Defoe is the best, if not the only, reliable option on this team. After all, he practically pulled Sunderland out of the bottom three last season with five goals in the final nine games and 11 league goals in 2016 alone. For that reason, he could be a good mid-round pick once everyone in your league overzealously takes all the good forwards in the first two rounds.
- Wahib Khazri – Khazri showed a lot of promise last season upon his arrival from Bordeauz in the winter transfer window with two goals and one assist, although he was excellent at creating chances and proficient at taking set-pieces. At best, Khazri could be a dark-horse pick this season that gives you points when you least expect it but he shouldn’t come off your bench too often.
- Lamine Kone – Kone is more of a last resort defender—seriously, go with any of the four starting Burnley defenders before him—but he showed some promise last season after arriving from Lorient in the winter transfer window. He’s a definite starter and even adding a goalscoring touch (two goals against Everton) to go with his three clean sheets. Should not be picked until the last round though, if even.