Whether the Black Cats retain their top flight status or not, there is clearly still huge room for improvement in Sunderland’s side and the way in which that squad is built will be crucial, either to Sunderland’s Premier League campaign next season or their challenge to return to England’s top flight.
English football is littered with examples of how Sunderland should be looking to build their squad into one worthy of the incredible support that the team is blessed with week-in-week-out. The most obvious is Leicester City, who look certain to clinch the most unlikely league title in the history of Premier League football. While Leicester’s story is not quite the fairy-tale some would paint it as - note the billionaire owner, millions spent on transfer fees and recruitment of a manager with a history of management at big clubs – it surely must be considered the aim for any mid-to-low level Premiership club with even the slightest of aspirations. While Leicester’s season has been hugely reliant upon the brilliance of their star triad – Mahrez, Vardy and Kante – they have also recruited a string of solid performers throughout their team who have been just as important in their own way to Leicester’s success.
It would be wildly naïve to expect that Sunderland will strike lucky and sign three players as brilliant as Leicester’s star trio but their squad is an indicator of what can be achieved on a relatively modest budget.
Sunderland might also look to Stoke for another perfect example of how to build their squad. Stoke began under Tony Pulis with an entirely pragmatic approach to top flight signings. Pulis had a game plan that was effective and signed players who could perform the roles his game plan required. It wasn’t pretty, but would we rather watch a winning Sunderland team playing utterly practical football or a losing side that knocks the ball around like Barcelona?
This foundation of a solid Premier League squad under Pulis meant that when Mark Hughes arrived at the Britannia he had a platform from which to add more exciting flair players, such as former Barcelona starlet Bojan Krkic, without risking his team’s solidity and ability to compete with the more attritional teams in the top flight.
A slightly more left field comparison to consider would be to look north of the border to Rangers. The Glasgow side have improved immeasurably this season after a few years of absolute dross, largely down to the targeted signing policies of new manager Mark Warburton. Under previous manager Ally McCoist’s reign, Rangers had fallen into the trap that has been Sunderland’s undoing for too long, in that they signed players based on reputation and the fact that they could be bought cheaply, rather than selecting players to fill specific holes within their squad. This season saw Warburton identify exactly what his squad needed, where such players could be found at an affordable price and then targeted them extremely efficiently.
A perfect example would be the signing of former Sunderland youth star Martyn Waghorn. Having identified Rangers lack of a clinical, physical presence up front Warburton identified Waghorn, then plying his trade for Wigan, as the player he needed and brought him in at a price that now looks an absolute bargain following Waghorn’s sensational debut season in Scottish football.
Sunderland have begun to take note of the success this kind of targeted recruitment can bring under the stewardship of Sam Allardyce. The January transfer window saw the recruitment of quality players in positions Sunderland were desperately short on depth and class in. Lamine Kone has been an absolute revelation and looks to be every bit the commanding central defender we have been crying out for. Likewise, Wahbi Khazri has brought invention, flair and a genuine threat at set-pieces that has been distinctly lacking since Seb Larsson apparently lost his magic touch at free-kicks and corners. If Sunderland can continue to target players who fulfil a need, rather than signing players who are cheap or "look a bit useful", then there is real hope that Allardyce could guide Sunderland to a position where they are a real Premiership force to be reckoned with rather than perennial relegation strugglers.
Whatever happens this season, Sunderland might finally be in a position to give supporters something to celebrate on the pitch in return for their years of dutifully turning up to watch catastrophically awful performances from players not fit to wear the shirt.