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Sunderland's Summer Signings: Suspect Or Sound?

With Gus Poyet now looking to bring in signings to help his bid to keep Sunderland up, we take a look back at our summer business...

Summer Success: Ki's been an excellent addition for Sunderland
Summer Success: Ki's been an excellent addition for Sunderland
Clive Rose

Just a few months after the end of the last transfer window Sunderland already seem to be aiming to bring in several new faces as a matter of urgency as Gus Poyet seeks to keep the club in the Premier League. The four strongest links so far have been with Liam Bridcutt (a central midfielder), and a trio of Argentinians; Ignaccio Scocco (a striker), Mariano Andujar (a goalkeeper) and Santiago Vergini (a central defender). Considering players in all four of these positions were recruited in the summer it hardly seems a ringing endorsement of the business done then that Poyet, Robert De Fanti, Valentino Angeloni et al are back to scouring world football for new signings in the winter window.

But was the radical influx in the summer as poorly executed as this would seem to suggest? Well, there were certainly a few miss-steps. Former Basel midfielder Cabral has already sealed a loan deal to Genoa in Serie A after an extremely strange six months in red and white. Despite featuring heavily in preseason the Cape Verdean disappeared almost immediately after the competitive fixtures kicked off, and no one would be surprised were he never to be seen on Wearside again. Likewise ex-Lazio defender Modibo Diakite has been linked to a move back to Serie A with Verona. The centre-back has appeared only intermittently in the first team, mainly due to injuries and suspensions, and hasn't particularly impressed when he has played. Fellow French central defender Valentin Roberge has also been the subject of transfer rumours, and has mostly failed to force his way into the starting line-up - though his performances have been noticeably steadier than his countryman's.

Whilst it is hard to disagree that Diakite and Cabral have been failures at Sunderland, and that Roberge has not proved to be an upgrade on what we already had, this is not necessarily the most damning indictment of the work over the summer. All three were free transfers from outside of the Premier League, and considering the volume of new players who have arrived it can hardly be surprising that a few have failed to have the desired impact.

As well as the three Bosmans, Sunderland also recruited a fair number of younger players in the summer that have gone into the development rather than the first team squad. None of David Moberg-Karlsson, El-Hadji Ba or Duncan Watmore have made more than a few appearances, even less in some cases, in the first team but it would be exceedingly harsh to judge them negatively for this due to their young age and the fact that they all came from leagues significantly weaker than the Premier League. Charis Mavrias is perhaps a slightly different case. The Greek winger may only be nineteen years old, but he is a full international and also appeared in the Champions League for previous club Panathinaikos. Despite his youth, it is perhaps a little surprising that he seems to have disappeared so totally from the senior team at Sunderland.

There is nothing wrong with recruiting promising young players who cannot make an immediate impact. Indeed, the cameos of Ba and Watmore in the recent FA Cup tie against Carlisle showed that both could have a lot to offer Sunderland in the next few years. Similarly, if picked astutely free transfers can prove a useful addition to any squad - just ask Juventus fans what they think about the recruitment of Andrea Pirlo in 2011. However, the issue was that at a time when Sunderland had not so much been flirting with relegation as full-on crotch grabbing and twerking in front of it, these types of signings were not really what Sunderland needed. It's all very well signing young players to develop quietly, and free transfers to complement the squad, but when you've just finished 17th in the league what you really need is an injection of quality into the first team.

A further issue with the summer's recruitment was that key positions were not adequately filled. With Wes Brown's full recovery from injury hardly a certainty in the summer, it was a mistake that the only players to come in at centre-back were two players signed on free transfers with no experience of Premier League football. Likewise, the team's weaknesses at full back were well documented yet all of the club's prime targets were missed out on, with the fall back choices of Ondrej Celustka and Andrea Dossena proving to be no more than temporary stand ins.

The two signings who were clearly bought with the purpose of improving the first team directly have both been very disappointing. Jozy Altidore was signed on the back of a season of exceptional goal-scoring for both club and country, yet has failed to hit the ground running in the Premier League notching just a solitary league goal so far. Meanwhile Emanuele Giaccherini has impressed in flashes, but certainly hasn't brought the raw quality one would expect from an Italian international coming off the back of two straight title-winning seasons in Serie A with Juventus.

That is not to say that all of Sunderland's summer signings have been failures or disappointments. Three of the less heralded players brought in this summer have proven to be increasingly important players for the Black Cats as the season has worn on. Vito Mannone, Fabio Borini and Ki Sung-Yeung are all now mainstays of the Sunderland first team squad, with their performances both past and in the future doubtless crucial to Poyet's hopes of keeping his side in the top flight. However the fact that both Borini and Ki are loan signings means that either Sunderland will need to sign replacements again in the summer, or else still need to negotiate with their clubs to turn their stays on Wearside into permanent ones. This hardly represents ideal planning.

Regardless of that though, the fact remains that all three players have come in and improved upon (or in Mannone's case, adequately replaced) established members of Sunderland's team last season. There is a common link between all three of these transfer hits not shared by the less successful newcomers - all three had been playing in the Premier League the season before. Whilst I'm not suggesting that Sunderland's business should have been focused entirely on recruiting from inside the Premier League, it cannot be a coincidence that it is these three that are the most successful signings. Yes, Altidore too has previously played in the league, but he has had a lot of football elsewhere since, and was very young during his short spell with Hull City.

What Sunderland needed to achieve was a balance between recruiting proven quantities, as well as bringing in young and 'bargain' players from abroad. Ultimately, had Giaccherini and Altidore hit the ground running and proved as useful to the team as Mannone, Ki and Borini have been then I doubt anyone would be bothered by the fact that a few players brought in relatively risk-free hadn't really worked out.

If you were going to say that they were poor choices from Sunderland, then you could point to the fact that, despite being an international and a Scudetto winner, Giaccherini tended to be prized more for his hard-work and diligence than his individual brilliance. With this in mind, perhaps he was not a player best equipped to lift Sunderland's squad up to the next level. Likewise, Jozy Altidore's success for AZ Alkmaar in the Eredivisie now could be seen as pointing to the American being more suited to a role as a big fish in a smaller pond.

However, it is very easy to say these things with the benefit of hindsight. Altidore's physicality, speed and recent goal-scoring record all pointed to him being a player who could thrive in the Premier League. Similarly, when the opportunity arose to recruit a player as decorated and highly thought of as Giaccherini it is not hard to see why De Fanti and co. were so quick to grasp it.

It is easy to see why Sunderland would look enviously at the business teams like Swansea have done; where they've brought in unheralded players who have proven to be excellent additions - with the prime example being last season's sensation Michu. However, for every transfer that proves to be a bargain like the Spaniard, there's someone like Antonio Luna at Aston Villa who comes in and doesn't look particularly able to cut it. If you decide to recruit nearly entirely from pools of less heralded foreign players then you are gambling that enough will come off to make the window a success. This doesn't make recruiting these types of players a mistake, but it does perhaps mean that you need to temper it with the signing of more established and reliable players as well.

So ultimately there were certainly issues with Sunderland's summer recruitment drive. It could be said that not enough effort was expended on improving a first team that had proved to be far below the standard required. However, although they have not yet worked out, it isn't hard to see where the logic lay in the recruitment of Altidore and Giaccherini, and although no genuine quality was recruited at full back there were lengthy pursuits of targets like Gino Peruzzi and Lucas Orban that fell through late on. The main criticism has to be that the club, encouraged by the recent success of several Premier League sides, decided to gamble too much on signing relatively unknown players from outside of the league.

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