Let’s put something straight from the off. The plan the club had to restructure everything and transform the playing staff was not only entirely necessary but also nothing but commendable.
Now that the transfer window has closed we can analyse the good, the bad, the ugly and just where it has left us. It may be a bit difficult to do and to try and stay objective after the Crystal Palace shambles but I will try my best.
Looking at the squad that was left at the end of the season once the free-agents had left and the loanees had returned to their parent clubs would have made the most optimistic of fans cry into their beer. It was absolutely shocking. We cannot underestimate the job that Di Canio and co inherited. If we are honest, it was a miracle that we managed to stay in the league last season.
The only right-back on the books was Bardsley who has quite rightly been exiled. There were no left-backs. In defence we had O’Shea, Cuellar and possibly Brown who the club thought was going to retire. On the left wing we had nothing but McClean. The midfield options were pretty much awful apart from an injured Cattermole and very raw N’Diaye. Up front there was a badly injured Fletcher, Graham, some unproven kids and at best, an inconsistent Sessegnon.
Mignolet, Johnson, Fletcher and Sessegnon were the only 4 players in the squad that we could really get any kind of a fee for. Sunderland has been posting heavy losses year after year and the latest was circa £27m. Combine these losses with the need to try and transform the team, build for the future, stop the haemorrhaging of money and also do all of that without increasing our wage bill by more than £4m per year to avoid a points deduction and then you will start to come to terms with quite how mammoth a task we had. The wage increase restriction is an interesting point that not everybody is aware of. A rule has been brought in, proposed by Ellis Short, that teams that had a wage bill of £52m or more, including National Insurance contributions, last season are not allowed to increase the wage bill by more than £4m for this coming season. If they do then there is a possible points deduction. I have read several fans asking why Southampton etc. can do this and that and sign players like Osvaldo on mental wages. It’s simple – they were well below the £52m limit last season and are allowed to increase their wage bill more than clubs, like Sunderland, that were above it.
So, with that in mind it is not a case of, ‘Ha’way man, Ellis. Get your chequebook out!’ What has also made things more difficult for Sunderland is the broken foot of Phil Bardsley. When he was in court for a speeding offence it was cited that his weekly wage was £32k. Over the course of a year that means his wage, without NI contributions, is £1.664m. Thus, it is £1.664m + NI less that we could spend on incoming players’ wages. Cattermole has also not been moved on and it is likely that he is on even more than Bardsley.
What options did the club have? They could have brought a couple of players in, sold nobody and hoped the players that have been useless for the last 2 seasons all of a sudden stopped being useless or they could let a few go, generate some cash, free up wages and bring in a lot more in terms of numbers. They quite rightly opted for option 2. I was and after Palace, still am, sick to death of seeing the same plodders holding us back. That sounds a bit contradictory as the club has chosen the option to change everything but the same players remain. This is where I think the club has fallen short in their execution.
I was OK with the Mignolet sale. The money we got was very, very good for a goalkeeper and he had no intention of signing a new contract. We cashed in and got the most we could. We just do not have the revenue streams to turn down that kind of money. I am also happy with the big money signings of Jozy Altidore and Emanuele Giaccherini. What I am not happy about is that the two most glaringly obvious positions in our team have only been partially, cheaply and not too impressively dealt with. We had no left-backs and Jack Colback has been filling in. He has done a decent enough job, even having some really good games, but on Saturday he showed against Crystal Palace that there is still an awful long way for him to go. Signing Dossena as the new left-back is bizarre. Given his age, his complete flop in this league previously and him just not being very good at all has left me very disappointed. We know that we have been pushing hard for a left-back all summer, Mendy was even flown here on Short’s private jet so just how it transpires that we’ve been left with a deadline day move for this turkey I do not know. Similarly in midfield we haven’t used any of the money and instead went for a free signing and a loan. Cabral and Ki are not bad players – don’t get me wrong. I think Cabral will come good after he adjusts to Di Canio’s methods and English football. Ki showed some real composure and guile for Swansea last season but he can be recalled in January. My main gripe is that we could and should have not left these positions so late and to chance. Midfield especially was crying out for some solid investment that would transform both how we defend and attack. To have had Larsson, Gardner and Vaughan all play in that position within the first three league games of the season is a real disappointment and resulted in the Crystal Palace Galacticos running a merry dance around two of them. Plenty will point out that we may have been a bit hasty in letting N’Diaye leave and as it stands I would probably agree with them. He was raw last season and had some stinkers but he also showed signs of a good player in the making. Personally, it looks to me as though we thought somebody else was on the verge of coming in and it fell through after we let him go back to Turkey on loan.
Sessegnon leaving will disappoint many but he was not going to play in this system, it will be Fletcher and Altidore so getting him off the wage bill makes sense. He is 29, unlikely to improve much and after getting caught over the alcohol limit whilst driving as we played MK Dons I would have been disappointed to see him play again anyway. We all (pretty much) agreed Di Canio was totally correct to ditch Bardsley for the casino incident and it is massively hypocritical not to want the same kind of punishment for Sessegnon. I know which of the two misdemeanours is worse in my book. Selling him so late into the window did leave us hamstrung and unable to reinvest the transfer fee and wages though. However, the timing was poor. Very poor. Not enough time to sort a replacement and barely enough time for Jim White to get overly excited by it all. The club will know there is going to a backlash and questions asked about why it was so late and the funds and wages haven’t been reinvested. Their answers will certainly be interesting.
The next point I wish to touch upon is the number of players we have signed and the balance of those players. We’ve had 14 arrivals. A huge number but it was needed given what we were left with. There has been a mix of first team starters, backup and potential but did we get the mix right? Some of the ‘potential’ players can also fall into the backup category but I am putting Mavrias, Ba, Karlsson and Watmore into the potential category and I think they are a good start. In the back up category I have Roberge, Mannone, Borini and Dossena. That leaves Celustka, Diakite, Giaccherini, Ki, Cabral and Altidore as the 6 first team starters. This is 2 players too short in the starters column and 1 too many in the backup one for my liking. In a perfect world I would have loved another 2 genuinely good players in the starting line-up. A good, proper left-back (not Dossena) and another ‘midfielder with the keys’ as Di Canio describes because as it stands I am not sure Ki is enough on his own. Time will tell but I feel there is just a bit too much filler and not quite enough killer.
Against Arsenal, providing that everybody is fit I would start with:-
Celustka Diakite Brown Colback
Johnson Cabral Ki Giaccherini
And that looks like a pretty good, solid team to me. I am in fact encouraged. However, should Cattermole not be given a chance and Dossena fail to prove me wrong then we are extremely close to having to rely on the dross of the previous seasons. Larsson, Gardner or Vaughan are all next in line to cover in midfield. That terrifies me.
Have De Fanti and the new regime had a good transfer window? I would say nearly. They have had a right good go at it and put the wheels in motion. It had to be done and even if the worst does happen I think this is the path that we should continue along. My hands are held up to them and appreciate the problems that they have had to try and fix. Unfortunately I cannot shake the feeling that we have pulled up just a bit short during this window and will be relying far too much on XI players staying fit until January. It is going to be a turbulent trip but let’s stick in there and give it a go. We most certainly didn’t do as badly as some claim. Let’s try to remember where we started. Overall? 6 out of 10 – room for improvement.