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SAFC Preseason Review: It's All About Fitness, Right?

Carlos Cuéllar has been the sole arrival on Wearside this pre-season.  (Photo by Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images)
Carlos Cuéllar has been the sole arrival on Wearside this pre-season. (Photo by Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images)
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Well, this has been different.

Where we Sunderland fans usually enjoy an influx of a huge number of new faces over the summer - at least since the days when Drumaville arrived on the scene - this time we've had to settle for the arrival of just one. Carlos Cuéllar should represent a solid defensive signing, and the removal of various plagues (the 'Asamoah Gyan strain' is a particularly pleasing one to see the back of) in the dressing room will have cut the wage bill considerably.

But the lack of new signings is, perhaps rightly, worrying to many. Steven Fletcher remains a Wolves player. Hence, Sunderland have just one recognised striker in the form of the injury plagued Fraizer Campbell - Ji-Dong Won and Connor Wickham remain much too young and raw to be relied upon for a full season. There are gaps elsewhere in the squad too.

The one upside of this is perhaps that it breeds a greater collective understanding amongst the current playing staff. Surely, with no massive upheaval, the team would benefit from a greater unity?

Well, on the basis of the side's pre-season performances, this has scarcely been the case.

Let us start with some perspective. Preseason results mean nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Our neighbours from up the road once suffered a 1-6 loss at Leyton Orient, then promptly walked to the first division championship with ease. A loss in preseason is not the end of the world.

Nor are bad performances. Yes, it's annoying - especially for those who've given their time and money to actually travel to friendlies - but ultimately preseason is about getting players fit and ready for the gruelling season ahead.

In this respect, we can assume Sunderland are fairly well prepared. Plenty have been given a decent share of playing time, and a host of youngsters have been thrust into the first-team limelight in order to prove themselves. Stephane Sessegnon has been worryingly absent, and time will tell as to whether or not his Wearside days are numbered.

Speculation on such matters is mere conjecture, though, so we are better off considering what has actually happened, not what may happen.

Unfortunately, even bearing in mind that preseason results count for nought, the signs haven't been too promising. Four losses in six games, with just one win, is hardly confidence inspiring. It doesn't really matter, but a few wins would have allayed fears that O'Neill's current squad is much too weak.

Defeat against Korean side Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma was not too demoralising. It was the side's opening game, against a team right in the midst of their season and, aside from a defensive lapse or two, Sunderland were fairly solid. Connor Wickham looked impressive up front, though there was still a scent of impotency in front of goal.

Victory followed - just - against FC Groningen, sealed by Ryan Noble's stunning late strike. Injuries had caused a reshuffle and subsequent confusion in defence, but once the young John Egan settled he looked promising, and the snatching of a late win had everyone in a buoyant mood.

On then, to Hartlepool, and a miserable 0-1 defeat. Titus Bramble showed why many hoped he would leave Wearside this summer, while the side was again wasteful up front. Fraizer Campbell, who has inspired much expectation, was a particular culprit - this coming season is a big one for the former Manchester United man.

Helsingborgs were up next, and the less said, the better. The Swedish champions won 2-0, Sunderland were awful - but it's all about fitness, remember?

Then came a mini-tour of the midlands. James McClean's strike was enough to nab a 1-1 draw at Derby in another uninspiring game, before Leicester rounded off a miserable six game spell by winning 1-0 via a Tom Parkes goal.

If we are to ignore the poor performances and poorer results, there is one thing that cannot go unnoticed - goals, or rather, the lack thereof. In six games Sunderland mustered just four goals - three in one game, and two in the space of three minutes - and for the most part they never really looked like adding more. Given the side's profligacy at the end of last season, the lack of attacking options is an enormous cause for concern. Suddenly, £15m for Steven Fletcher looks like a bit of a steal.

A disappointing preamble for the season, then, but not all hope is lost. Martin O'Neill himself has dismissed preseason as little more than getting players fit and moulding a system for the upcoming year. Given the prominence of his 4-3-3 formation over the past month or so, we can at least say that this mission has been achieved.

Arsenal now await on Saturday - a daunting task even after the most upbeat of pre-seasons. Yet in O'Neill many fans still trust. They can only hope his influence continues to extend over his playing squad, and that a few more faces fill the very real gaps before the transfer window slides shut.

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