As Sunderland edge closer towards safety, and supporters become increasingly indifferent toward the remainder of the season, attention will naturally turn to the summer transfer window; especially now Margaret Byrne has promised that the coming months will be a busy one for the club in the market. This news will no doubt please most fans, as it's become clearer and clearer as this disappointing season has gone on just how lacking the squad is in several areas, and just how light it is in numbers. There is a need for, if not a complete overhaul, then as least some serious reworking.
Naturally the attention will mostly be focused on those troublesome centre-half positions. Kilgallon and Bramble are likely to head for the exit this summer, while Carlos Cuellar and John O'Shea's form this season has been patchy to say the least, as the two head toward the twilight years of their respective careers. Elsewhere Kader Mangane has yet to make an appearance since his arrival in January, and it remains uncertain whether he ever will. It seems clear that a complete rebuilding of the defence is in order.
However, perhaps before starting to look the central positions, we should examine the problems at full-back. While Danny Rose has impressed at left-back, he has missed portions of the season, leaving the not entirely convincing Jack Colback to fill in for him. On the opposite side Craig Gardner, like Colback a midfielder by trade, puts in a lot of effort, but again just don't look entirely comfortable, and often lacks a final product.
One of the biggest criticisms of O'Neill this season is that he's been to cautious; too willing to sit on narrow leads and not letting enough players get forward. This is epitomised through how the full back's are used, and how they don't get into attacking positions as much as they should. It's especially disappointing to see Danny Rose get stuck in a more defensive role, however excellent he is at it, when he clearly has a lot of potential going forward. Rose has only managed to put in 32 crosses all season, just 0.3 per game, which suggest he isn't being given the freedom to get up on the overlap. Even when the full-backs are allowed to get forward, as Craig Gardner has in recent matches, the final delivery is usually lacking, with both Gardner and Rose generally struggling to beat the first man.
Having full-backs that stick to defensive work is also having a adverse effect on the performance of Adam Johnson, one of our key creative threats. Johnson has struggled all season to prove he's worth his hefty fee and the hype that surrounded his capture, and it's possible that his direct style of play has become a little too predictable. The winger lacks the pace to get down the left hand side and put in a cross (frustratingly it's down the left where he's been placed in recent games), and while he has a little bit more joy down the right, most defenders know that he's going to cut inside, making him easier to stop. Generally, Johnson has struggled to find the space to put crosses in and this is where an attacking full-back on the overlap could come in handy. It is, of course, much harder to defender against two players than one, and having someone on the overlap could create the space Johnson needs to deliver a killer ball.
With Sunderland looking so cautious going forward, and generally lacking in attacking options, O'Neill must allow the full-backs the freedom to get up on the overlap. Our first pieces of transfer activity this summer should be to secure the permanent signing of Danny Rose, and then look to add a right back who can perform an attacking role.
Of course the argument against overlapping full-backs is that they can leave you a little short in defence. The main reason why O'Neill has mostly asked Rose, Colback and Gardner to defend this season is because our centre-halves lack the pace to cover the flanks. Similarly, Lee Cattermole's injury trouble this season has meant that we've rarely had a midfielder whose job it is to protect the back four. Once we address the full-back situation, we should look to sign a centre-half with a lot more pace than we currently have, who can help to cover when the full-backs go forward. We also need another defensive midfield players, someone who can fill in if Cattermole is unavailable, and help intercept opponent attacks before they can reach the final third. While supporters initially though N'Diaye would take this role, it's become clear this he belongs further up the pitch, so this position should be another priority in the summer.
Fans are hopeful that the next transfer window will prove to be an eventful one. The back four clearly needs work, and while O'Neill may be tempted to start by signing central players, any re-building of the squad should begin in the full back positions, as having overlapping players is the way Sunderland should looking to go as the team enters the next stage of it's development.