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ANALYSIS! Piecing Together Poyet's Sunderland Transfer Plans

Just what are Sunderland up to in the transfer market and how desperate is the situation becoming? Cutting through the frustration and perception, we try to drill down into the facts to find out.

Richard Sellers


Whisper it very quietly, especially if you find yourself within earshot of a Sunderland fan particularly frustrated by the current lack of incoming transfer activity, but the start of the Premier League season is just three weeks away.

The temptation is to analyse what the squad is like right now and worry, but there seems little logic to that. Such a pursuit would be to try and judge a finished jigsaw puzzle - one for which you have not seen the desired image - whilst you're still in the process of turning over the pieces you've tipped out over your kitchen table.

So it's probably better to try and suspend that inclination to judge and instead try and look into the future to where it's going. That has been tough this summer given Sunderland's success in keeping information regarding transfers pretty tight, but as the days tick away we are slowly turning more pieces of the puzzle, each giving us a tantalising little clue as to what the final picture will look like.

So, lets have a look at the pieces of the puzzle we already have.

Sunderland are working towards a 23-man squad

This is something we know pretty much as a fact and have done for some time. Poyet mentioned it as far back as May and he recently dropped it into another interview when referring to his preseason plans.

Portugal is approaching and we want most of the squad in there. My idea was to have probably 20 of my 23-man squad in place by the time we get to Portugal. That's not the case.

Sunderland will be designed to play 4-3-3

Formations are an odd concept, really. One man's 4-3-3 is another man's 4-1-4-1. One man's 4-2-3-1 is another man's 4-4-1-1. One man's 5-2-3 is another man's 3-4-3, and so on. It's massively subjective and a little like splitting hairs, really. That said, we know that Poyet certainly considers his system to be 4-3-3. He has described it as 'my system', and his time at Brighton certainly backs that up.

So we can probably take for a gimme that the system will be roughly as seen below - a 4-3-3 that transitions into something more closely resembling a 3-4-3 the further up the field play progresses and designed to overload in wide areas.


The fact the system also essentially revolves around the defensive midfield player, who stays basically in position whilst the shape of the team changes around him, also tallies with Poyet's comments about the role when he signed Liam Bridcutt:

As soon as we started playing the system I wanted to play and knowing the importance of that role, I started checking if it was a possibility [to sign Bridcutt].

We are getting a very important player, who understands that role in the middle of the park.

Liam has one advantage compared with the rest of the squad, he knows us very well, knows how we play and understands the role perfectly.

Furthermore, I would also suggest that the type of full backs brought in this summer strongly hints towards this system. For clubs like Sunderland, complete full backs who are strong both defensively and offensively are out of reach. It's always one or the other, and the fact both Billy Jones and Patrick van Aanholt are much more dynamic going forward than defensively probably offers a large clue about what is being designed from a tactical standpoint.

The numbers: Defence/Goalkeepers

So, we already know that Poyet wants a squad of 23, but how does that translate into squad design? All we really know at this point is that the squad will be split between 10 defenders and goalkeepers and 13 midfielders and attackers. Again, this is straight from the horses mouth:

In any squad, if we play 4-3-3 - my system - I like to have three goalkeepers and seven defenders, NOT eight.

I want two players for place in the other positions, but not at the back - I like to use that extra player somewhere else, so you can have a squad of 23.

If one of the defenders can give you the option to play somewhere else, it helps you.

Those comments were in reference to Santiago Vergini, who played both centre back and right back last season and whom Poyet insists he is still keen to sign. So with that we can start to draw all this information together... start piecing together the edges and corners of our jigsaw.

Name Position
1. Vito Mannone GK
2. Costel Pantilimon GK
3. Jordan Pickford GK
4. Billy Jones RB
5. RB/CB
6. Patrick van Aanholt LB
8. Wes Brown CB
9. John O'Shea CB
10. CB

There are the ten for the back, then, with obvious gaps. Our number 5, a defender who can play full back and centre back, you would assume is just waiting to be filled by Vergini, though Arsenal's Carl Jenkinson has also been linked. Number 7, the second left back berth, presumably is ready for Marcos Alonso, who the club are still optimistic about signing.

Our number 10 here is presumably the spot for which Ashley Williams was earmarked before he opted to sign a new deal at Swansea, though there has been no shortage of others linked, with the most prominent recent names being Chelsea's Kurt Zouma and Celtic's Virgil van Dijk.

Note: I know Pickford is due to go on loan to Bradford, but he's still expected to be in the squad and just recalled if he's needed.

The numbers: Midfield/Attack

It gets a lot more murkier the higher up the pitch we get, due mainly to the versatility of players. It's obviously a great thing for a coach to have at his disposal, but it can make analysis tough. It's probably best to start by seeing what we have, discounting the younger players or those whose futures are quite up in the air at the moment.

Name Position
11. Lee Cattermole CDM
12. Liam Bridcutt CDM
13. Seb Larsson CM
14. CM
15. Jordi Gomez CM
16. CM
17. Jozy Altidore CF
18. Stephen Fletcher CF
19. Connor Wickham CF
21. Adam Johnson WG
22. Emanuele Giaccherini WG
23. WG

There are actually not as many gaps here as you might expect. It certainly surprised me a little seeing it written down. Only really four to fill, presuming no one else leaves which you can never rule out.

What's more, we can probably start filling in a few. We know, for example, that Fabio Borini is being earmarked for the number 20 position there in our list. We also know that Poyet considers his 'group' of strikers to be those listed above, "plus Fabio" with a bit of luck and seemingly a lot of patience.

As everyone knows, we've got Fletch, Jozy and Connor, plus Fabio [Borini] if he comes in.

It will be very difficult for Danny [Graham] to be part of that group.

So we can probably assume that's what Poyet is planning on having in terms of strikers for next season. If Borini chooses not to come, it's likely any replacement target will satisfy a similar critieria in terms of being able to cover both the centre forward positions and, in a pinch, the central striking role.

Further back, we hear from the Sunderland Echo who, are generally well informed, that Jack Rodwell is a 'genuine' target. So we'll slot him into the number 14 position here. If it won't be him, which is likely given his pedigree and the level of interest, like Borini we can assume there will be a similar alternative.

That leaves one central midfield berth to fill and one wide position, and which one remains open probably depends on what kind of a player Poyet considers Cristian Rodriguez to be. Sunderland's interest in the Atletico Madrid man has been confirmed by the head coach on a couple of occasions, and he is very capable of playing both wide and centrally, so it all depends on Poyet's perception of him really.

However, with Charis Mavrias in the squad and looking like developing, perhaps Poyet will consider the wide areas well covered between them if he was able to add Rodriguez to the group, ruling out the necessity to spend a large sum of cash trying to get another. It is also worth remembering that Jordi Gomez can fill in down the flanks too.

Perhaps, then, the last remaining piece of the puzzle will be another central midfield player? Perhaps, as someone able to cover both the defensive and attacking roles, we could see a reprieve for Alfred N'Diaye? The Senegalese international managed to get himself on the plane to the preseason training camp in Portugal and his agent has insisted he is desperate to remain on Wearside next season and prove himself.


I don't actually think the squad is as far away from being season-ready as we think. Progress in completing deals appears to be slow, but most of the targets are, I think, out in the open, and if Poyet and Lee Congerton are unable to land them then it's becoming quite clear the kind of players, positionally, they see as making up the squad next come September.

Of the seven gaps in our 23-man squad, we have updates or confirmation on ongoing deals for four of them - Santiago Vergini, Marcos Alonso, Fabio Borini and Cristian Rodriguez, and three of those were here last season so could provide a little precious continuity.

The pieces of the puzzle are all just starting to fall into place. As well as the confirmed targets, we know the size of the squad Poyet wants and the system he is designing it around. It may well be a case of getting a few over the line and then taking stock of what is left in the pot towards the end of the transfer window when fresh names become available as the bigger clubs finalise their squads. Historically, that is when a few very juicy loan deals become available for the lower Premier League clubs to hoover up, with Fabio Borini last season being a great example.

Anyway, all in all, and while I can appreciate and often share the frustration, I can't help but feel that reports of Sunderland's negligence in the transfer market this summer have, for now at least, been grossly exaggerated.

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