‘Tis the season to be jolly, and frankly this season isn’t offering a whole lot of jollity on Wearside. So, in an effort to find some festive cheer, I’m going to look ahead to what I hope our squad might look like at the opening of the 2013/2014 season, at the start of an inevitable* push for European qualification. Ahem. I’ll take a look at who’s in and who’s out in the Sunderland squad, and also have a re-jig of the squad numbers because I’m a pedantic bastard and ours, quite frankly, are in a shocking state.
PROPOSED STARTING XI
19. Debuchy - 16. O’Shea - 5. Granqvist - 3. Rose
6. Cattermole (c) - 4. Sissoko
11. Johnson - 28. Sessegnon - 23. McClean
17. Ji Dong-Won
I’ve set the team up in a 4-2-3-1 as opposed to the 4-4-1-1 we mostly used at present because I’d like to see us take games to the opposition a bit more (and signings like Johnson seem to show Martin O’Neill wants this for us too), and see our forward three get further forward and Stephane Sessegnon specifically get a bit closer to the sometimes isolated Steven Fletcher. With the defensive awareness of Lee Cattermole and proposed new addition Moussa Sissoko, I’m hoping this won’t leave our defence too exposed.
GK - 1. Simon Mignolet
I think that everyone at the club now has to recognise that the Belgian is an absolutely excellent goalkeeper, and deserves to be our no.1 for years to come. Aside from a couple of errors against West Brom (and every keeper makes some errors), Mignolet has been excellent this season and the only danger with him is if Manchester United’s purported interest actually turns into a bid.
I’ve changed his squad number to 1 because established first choice keepers not having the no.1 shirt is a pet hate, and frankly it makes me cry a little bit inside every time I see Phil Bardsley at the top of our squad list.
RB - 19. Mathieu Debuchy/Theodor Gebre Selassie/Martin Kelly
Probably very expensive but the French right back would certainly improve our defence. He played excellently for France in the Euros and was linked heavily to Newcastle over the summer. Ultimately he proved out of their price range, but the signings of Johnson and Fletcher this summer show that Ellis Short isn’t afraid to spend when he believes the targets to be worthwhile.
Other possible targets are Theodor Gebre Selassie who looked extremely impressive for the Czech Republic in the Euros, off the back of which he signed for Werder Bremen in the Bundesliga. How viable he would be as a transfer target I’m not sure, but again he would certainly be a marked improvement on Phil Bardsley.
Another alternative could be Martin Kelly of Liverpool. With Glen Johnson playing well, and Andre Wisdom a young and promising alternative, Kelly might feel that he may have to move for first team appearances. At the moment he’s out injured, but should be back to get match fitness back before the end of the season. His status as an England international might add a few pointless pounds to his price, however.
CB - 16. John O’Shea
I wasn’t sure about this; the ex-United player has had a pretty dodgy season so far, and has been prone to picking up a few knocks in his short time at the club. However, he and Cuellar started the season very well in the centre of defence (how long ago does it seem that we were praising our defensive solidity as pretty much the only good thing about our performances?) and he was excellent as the leader of our defence last season, so I’m hopeful that he can pick his performances up again, especially if part of a overall better back four.
CB - 5. Andreas Granqvist
Alright, I stole this one from the rumours going around that O’Neill is interested in him. He’s an experienced international for Sweden, is tall and is pacier than either O’Shea or Cuellar. I haven’t got a lot more on Granqvist to be honest. He’s got good stats on Football Manager...
LB - 3. Danny Rose
Danny Rose has, quite simply, been a revelation this season. I, like I suspect a lot of fans, wasn’t expecting a whole heap when he was signed, but he’s proved both more consistent and effective in attack and defence than the departed Kieran Richardson, and has probably been our player of the season so far. Making his move to Sunderland permanent should be an absolute top priority, and I can only hope that his performances have convinced Ellis Short that he’s worth cracking the American Express out on.
My main concern is that Spurs are essentially without a left-back at the moment as they wait for Benoit Assou-Ekotto to return from injury. If this happens sooner rather than later, hopefully Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas will either look to bring in his own man, or be content with the cover that Jan Vertonghen and Kyle Naughton seem to have ably given so far this season.
CDM - 6. Lee Cattermole (c)
I have to admit, I’ve never been entirely sure about our captain. At times, he’s looked like he needs a captain to have a few words and restrain him from some of his dafter acts, which is obviously impossible when he’s our on-pitch leader. However, under Martin O’Neill he seems to be flourishing; retaining the aggression and tenacity that make him so effective at breaking up opposition play, but coupling it with a slightly more controlled and mature attitude. As many others have said, he’s clearly the leader of this Sunderland team and looks badly missed when he’s out of the side (I maintain that if he’d played against Everton earlier in the season we would have won 1-0 as Fellaini’s goal and assist both came from the absent captain’s prowling ground).
He’s recently signed a new deal, and one benefit of the negative perception of him from outside of Sunderland is that it seems unlikely anyone will try and poach him from us. Hopefully he’ll be here for a long time yet.
CDM - 4. Moussa Sissoko
Currently at Toulouse, the Frenchman can provide height, physicality and the box-to-box ability that our midfield is currently lacking. His 183 appearances for Toulouse have yielded 20 goals, which shows his ability to chip in with a few – useful as he’ll be replacing Larsson and Gardner in my side, both of whom can be expected to score a few goals in a season.
The main snag here is if Sissoko would actually come to Sunderland. He’s been persistently linked to the Premier League in the last few years, and most recently our dear friends up the road have been strongly linked to him. Signing Sissoko would be a brilliant, and expensive no doubt, coup. Is it actually possible? Who knows.
RAM/RW - 11. Adam Johnson
Johnson’s not had the best start to his Sunderland career with injury, illness and a lack of confidence all afflicting him in his first few months. However, anyone who’s watched him play previously knows the talent he has and his performances are clearly starting to improve (doubters, just watch that assist for Fletcher against Fulham and see if you can resist the urge to fiddle with yourself). It’s clear that Martin O’Neill has huge faith in Johnson, as from memory he’s the only one of our malfunctioning creative trifecta (McClean, Sessengon and Johnson) that O’Neill hasn’t dropped from the starting line in the Premier League this season.
For my money, his best performances so far for Sunderland tend to come on the left rather than the right flank, which is a problem as this is also where James McClean has looked best this season. Hopefully as his and the team’s confidence picks up, Adam will start to shine on the right as well.
I’ve changed his squad number to 11 as I find the line of three 20s (21, 28 and 23) behind the striker unsightly. What do you mean I need to get out more?
CAM/In-the-hole - 28. Stephane Sessegnon
The Beninese magician has turned in some great and some poor performances so far this season, but there can be no doubting that he’s capable of the absolutely sublime as well as the pretty appalling (was it against QPR that he managed to volley his shot out for a throw-in?). Frankly, this inconsistency (as well as perhaps his age) is probably what allowed him to stay at Sunderland this summer, and is just something we’re going to have to accept as part of who he is as a player. But when he scores goals like he did at Fulham this season, or against Swansea last season, then who really cares?
Hopefully as we improve this season, Sess will be able to push closer to Fletcher and stop the big Scotsman from looking as isolated as he has at times this season.
LAM/LW - 23. James McClean
Putting aside all the nonsense about the various things McClean has done to rub people up the wrong way this season (like having an opinion and, god forbid, thinking Trappatoni’s lost it), he has still had a fairly poor season so far. However, recently this has started to change and he looked good in spells against Chelsea, and excellent against Reading. Personally, I think his improvement has been down to going back to basics. When he burst onto the scene last season, he was great because he was quick, powerful and direct. He ran at full-backs like a freight train, tore past them and put excellent deliveries into the box. The problems seem to have come as he’s been encouraged to add more to his game; cutting inside or even being switched to the right wing. I’m not suggesting he just needs to stick rigidly to the left-side, but he should be encouraged to do what he does best, and try other things when he feels confident and comfortable (god, this sounds a bit like a sex-tips column now, I swear it isn’t). Antonio Valencia is a good comparison – similar to McClean, he’s extremely one-footed (on the right, as opposed to the left), but he’s still a fixture in the United team and clearly a favourite of Ferguson’s.
With a big lad like Steven Fletcher up front, James is exactly the kind of winger we want making life hard for full-backs and whipping in crosses. He’s also shown that he’s willing to work extremely hard to help out his own left-back.
ST - 9. Steven Fletcher
I was extremely keen that we sign Steven Fletcher this summer. His goal tally for a, let’s be honest, crap Wolves side last season was very impressive, and his aerial ability is up there with the very best in the division. So when it became clear he was O’Neill’s number one target I was delighted, and he hasn’t disappointed. He may not have scored any headed goals so far, but this is more down to our malfunctioning wingers than Fletcher himself (you can’t head nonexistent crosses, after all). What he has shown is his brilliance as a finisher. His instinct for goal is up there with Darren Bent’s, and he’s shown himself to be a much better all-round player than Aston Villa’s fourth choice striker.
A great signing by O’Neill, and hopefully he’s here for the long haul. I’ve given him the number 9 shirt because I desperately miss having a hero of a goalscorer wearing it (sorry Fraizer).
ON THE BENCH
Tommy Sorenson has replaced Kieren Westwood. I think the Irishman’s a good solid goalkeeper, but as the incumbent Irish no.1, I can’t see him happy to stay and play second fiddle to Mignolet (which is fair enough), and he has no chance of usurping the top spot. Therefore I guess he’ll be off in the summer. Tommy’s come in because I think an experienced keeper who won’t mind being second-choice, but can impart wisdom and do a job if necessary, is best for our back-up goalie. It’s Sorenson in particular because I bloody love him and couldn’t be bothered to look for any other experienced keepers who might sign. Sue me.
Cuellar, Gardner, Colback and Larsson all drop to the bench for me. I rate all of them as perfectly decent players, but I think those I’m bringing in are an improvement on all of them. However, they’re all fairly versatile and well worth having in and around the squad for rotation and cover.
Wickham’s a tough one, he’s looked great this season in the time he’s played, but going forwards I can’t see us playing without two wingers and Sessegnon in the hole, and I’m not sure how he could fit into that. Certainly I’d be happy to see him operate as the lone striker when Fletcher’s unavailable, and perhaps he could even work on the right wing as he did at Ipswich. But at the moment, I see him as an option on the bench rather than a starter every week.
Finally, there’s Ji Dong-Won. I think it’s pretty clear that Martin O’Neill doesn’t fancy him (I don’t think he’s going through the same intensive training reinvention that Wickham was, though I’d be happy to be proved wrong) and the vultures seem to be circling for a January bid. I’m keeping him as I’m envisaging shipping out Fraizer Campbell and Louis Saha, and it seems a mite foolish to ditch over half of your strike force at once, even if they are under-performing. Ultimately, we probably do need a better third choice option, but Bruce showed the dangers of trying to change too much at once so I’m wary of recommending getting shot of too many players. Also, I’m a romantic at heart and who could ever forget that beautiful moment against Manchester City (even better in the Swahili commentary, if you’ve never heard it)?
So, those are players arriving/staying, here’s the list of those who’ll be on their bike. Should be pretty self-explanatory if you’ve ever, you know, watched most of them play:
Like I said, most explain themselves. Westwood I’ve already mentioned, Bramble and Kilgallon are I think out of contract at the end of the season and I can’t see us extending, Elmohammady has already been farmed out on loan and hopefully will be bought by Hull, and I think Saha is on a one year deal that I also can’t see being extended. I could see the point behind the McFadden loan, but it looks pretty clear now that it won’t work out and he’ll be off in January.
David Vaughan is a fairly useful player, but very similar to Colback and of the two I prefer the Ginger Prince. If we’re bringing more midfielders in, it makes sense to let Vaughan go. If that happens, I guess I’ll just have to throw away the fetching "DAVID VAUGHAN 15" poster that Sunderland gave me with a match programme. Shame. Campbell seems like a really nice lad, and it was great to see him come back from injury and get the goal against ‘Boro, and then score a true wunderbar against Norwich, but he just doesn’t look good enough for us. Move him on and the best of luck to him elsewhere. Finally, I can't imagine Wes Brown still playing professional football at the end of this season. He was great in the performances he did have for us last season, but I think the time may have come for him to retire.
As for the others not in the match squad or out the revolving door; David Meyler seems like a nice guy and has been unlucky with injuries. I don’t think he’s the answer to all our woes in the centre of midfield, but since coming back he hasn’t had a run of games (though I haven’t checked how he’s getting on at Hull) to show what he can do. Ultimately, it’s never bad to have a bit of cover around and he doesn’t seem like he’s going to get too disruptive if he doesn’t get much playing time. Feed him Nando’s and let him keep "bantering" with Campbell on Twitter and I’m sure he’ll be happy as anything.
I’d also probably keep hold of Phil Bardsley. He certainly isn’t good enough for our first team (words can’t describe how angry I was at the two goals he gift-wrapped for Chelsea), and I’d be willing to let him go if a decent offer came in, but he’s not un-useful to have around the squad as cover. He’ll give it his all, which may not be enough to start week in week out, but for a second/third choice RB might be enough.
I’ve been extremely optimistic with some of the proposed signings, but in fairness Ellis Short showed he is willing to back Martin O’Neill in the summer, so perhaps signings like Sissoko and Debuchy aren’t too outrageous. Ultimately, whoever we sign, these are positions that need filling with players better than their current occupants either in the January window or over the summer if we hope to push on as a club. Likewise, the dead wood I have mentioned needs to be moved on as well. Do that, and who’s to say where the fun could end? The Mags finished 5th last season. The same lot that are currently only capable of lumping the ball roughly forward and hoping it bounces in off Papiss Cisse’s arse. We can hope, at least.
*I’m not making any promises.
Nick Holden (@nhldn on Twitter)