It became apparent early in the season that Costel Pantilimon was struggling with weekly botched mares; he was being beaten from close range near-constantly, he was error prone, and just bafflingly inconsistent. This was not the goalkeeper from last season. Credit where it’s due, the Romanian did save all eight of the shots on target from Newcastle United in the Wear-Tyne derby, but his goal-conceding mistakes such as against West Bromwich Albion were far too regular.
Maybe Pantilimon’s January sale was somewhat unexpected, but it opened the door to Jordan Pickford, who immediately fell into a goalkeeper’s baptism of fire against Tottenham Hotspur in January. The 22 year old starlet conceded four goals at White Hart Lane but did also save another seven shots on target. Pickford would be recalled again against Watford in May in a nothing contest, conceding two goals. There’s promise there, but it’ll take time.
Sam Allardyce’s preferred number one was Vito Mannone who took his second chance at Sunderland absolutely smashed it out of the park. The Italian has been so much better than in previous seasons; he’s quicker, he’s more reactive, his reflexes are good, and most importantly he’s turned up when it matters most. From March onward, Mannone found some consistency and good form. His 4-shot-saving performance at Southampton in March was good; his clean sheet against Norwich in April was better, but his part in the 3-0 win over Everton in May was, by far, his best this season.
John O’Shea, after five years, may have finally reached the end of his first team run at Sunderland, as it seems the team no longer need rely on his experience, vision or back-line organisation. It’s not that his performances have dropped; more that Sunderland fans have realised we actually have better defenders than him now, and the last great shift he put in for us was in the 0-1 away win at Crystal Palace in November. Although still reliable with clearances and interceptions, there’s a reason O’Shea has been benched since March.
Another long-term defender on the way out now is Wes Brown. His role this season has been, again, minimal; overseeing a 6-match run of conceding 15 goals. Actually that’s really bad. Really bad.
All 36 minutes of Adam Matthews passed everybody by. Who knows when we’ll see him again.
Billy Jones grafted like a man possessed in most matches from August to February but his primal urge to tackle everything and everyone became an annoying liability. His 8 yellow cards across 24 matches were already a warning sign. Nonetheless, a shout goes out to his part in the win at Crystal Palace; he got the match-winning assist and also won 6 of 8 tackles.
Replacing Jones at right-back was the on-loan and unproven DeAndre Yedlin who was a welcome alternative with a lot of much-needed pace. And, you know what, since October the American has seriously improved. He is a far more disciplined player, much more defensively astute and has shown the right attitude all season long. His role in the 2-1 win over Manchester United in February was excellent – winning 100% of his attempted tackles while still bombing forward to creative chances in the final third.
The half-talented Sebastián Coates had a dreadful start to the campaign that included 4 bookings in 6 matches. Admittedly, he was usually reliable in defensive aerial duals, such as against Stoke City in November, winning every ball in the air; however, overall, he couldn’t match the standard he reached toward the end of the 14/15 season, and was loaned to Sporting Clube de Portugal in January.
If any defender deserves praise for improvement it’s Patrick van Aanholt. For a long time, the Dutchman just could not get his s*** together. Dick Advocaat had the left-back trapped in tactical hell; he was either playing too far forward or too far back, and was to blame for just about everything that was going wrong defensively. However, under Sam Allardyce’s management, van Aanholt transformed into a decent all-round defender. His tackling accuracy, particularly in November and December, was exceptional (100% against both Stoke City and Everton). In January, his goal contribution kept Sunderland’s momentum going, especially against AFC Bournemouth in the 1-1 home draw. After constantly improving each month, it was fitting to see van Aanholt score the opener against Everton at home, with a goal that was definitely not in any way deflected.
Younès Kaboul could have had a very different season. His double-booking at AFC Bournemouth in September was an embarrassment, and aside from his chip-assist in the Wear-Tyne derby, nobody was that impressed with the Frenchman. However, since March, Kaboul’s return to the first team accompanied a series of fine displays. He won 9 defensive battles in the 0-2 loss to Leicester City and put in one of the best performances of his recent career against Everton in May.
As for Lamine Koné, what can be said? Is this the best half-season debut in the club’s history? From the moment the defender clobbered Yaya Touré in February, he has been an absolute unit at the back. He refused Norwich City anything in April and has been instrumental to the commendable defensive record Sunderland has had since January. Also, his performance against Everton – with 2 goals and 100% tackling success – has got to be the best individual performance of the season. Surely.
Our midfield from August to January was largely held together by the human blu-tack that is Yann M’Vila. The axe-wielding Frenchman remained consistent during Advocaat’s run while many others fell apart, and had contributed to 4 goals by October. The on-loan interceptor has been a key man this campaign, and has lived up to the minor hype around him with some clever passing and dominating displays in possession.
When M’Vila was not playing so well (around January time), Sunderland had fortunately recruited a total bargain in Jan Kirchhoff. And good grief, what a signing. What a month January was. Thomas Tuchel’s old golden boy has done good this season, even if he is terrifying to watch in possession at times with his carefree pedestrian-like strolling through the opposition. I don’t think we’ll ever fully comprehend exactly what level of player we have here.
Out wide, Wahbi Khazri has been another good signing, if not slightly underwhelming. Although the Tunisian was relatively unknown to the Premier League, his set-piece statistics were already Mesut Őzil-level good. His 1 assist and 2 goals is arguably below what he should have produced, given his carnivorous goal threat in Ligue 1, but when he did score, it really mattered. The wide midfielder has a lot of energy and drive. He’ll be a force next season, for sure.
As for Lee Cattermole, who knows in what capacity we will see him in next season. The captain has put in another season of solid shifts and industrious work ethic, but there are still doubts about him. Take away his killer long-ball trait and efforts, and it’s just been another average season from Cattermole. Don’t lie – you know you’ve shouted out about his passing at least twice this season. Make no mistake, when he’s in the mood, he’ll play 90 minutes like it’s a cup final, such as his utter omnipotence in the 0-3 win at Norwich City; but with Kirchhoff sat in defensive midfield, and the possibility of (our best current) central playmaker Yann M’Vila signing permanently, what role will there be for Cattermole?
Ola Toivonen, like most players, only seemed to turn up against Aston Villa. He got an assist in both fixtures but, despite knowing he was past his best, this was still a bad season for him. Jordi Gomez was loaned out in January. That had to happen – the Spaniard played six matches and didn’t do a whole lot worthwhile.
Speaking of which; Jack Rodwell had 22 matches to prove he could be more than just potential, but barely got out of first gear all season. In fairness, he was aggressive as hell in the 1-1 home draw with Swansea City in August, and did score on the final day at Vicarage Road, but nobody cared.
Sebastian Larsson is another Swede on Wearside who would rather not remember this season. Another victim of Dick Advocaat’s misguided first team setup, Larsson barely got a full 90 minutes all season. It’s debatable whether the team missed his work rate in the first half of the campaign, but Sam Allardyce surely missed having him as a back-up substitute during his injury layoff. It’s been an unlucky season for Larsson, and probably his last at Sunderland too.
Elsewhere, final day call-ups for Rees Greenwood and George Honeyman went as well as could be expected. They didn’t do great, but they didn’t do bad. There’s a bright future in the senior team for both.
At the start of the season, Dick Advocaat’s attacking paradigm was set up to the benefit of Jeremain Lens. The Dutchman’s rollercoaster run into October included 3 yellow cards, a dismissal, 2 goals and 2 assists; a sort-of promising start for who looked to be Sunderland’s offensive core. Of course, nothing happened after that. Under Sam Allardyce, Lens just didn’t adjust and lost his starting spot altogether. His final day goal and assist at Watford in May was irrelevant to Sunderland’s cause, and typically eye-rolling considering the six-month wait for it to happen.
Steven Fletcher similarly forged an encouraging start to his goal haul, with 4 goals by November. Considering the low expectations of him, that wasn’t a bad return, and his volley against Newcastle United was a glimpse of how effective he can be. However, when Fletcher wasn’t effective, he was anonymous. After a six-match goalless streak, the Scot was shipped out to Ligue 1 in January.
Everybody expected another heart-full campaign out of Fabio Borini and that’s exactly what we got, even if he didn’t reach the goal contribution expected of him. His tally of 5 goals and 2 assists may have started late into the season, but was still influential to Sunderland’s momentum from January. The Italians part in the crucial 0-3 win at Carrow Road in April was perhaps his best of the season.
Replacing the outgoing Steven Fletcher was the ultimately pointless half-seasonal Dame N’Doye. The Senegalese did score a deflected shot to earn a point against Crystal Palace in March, but as a winger he was more-often a hindrance to the team. Even on the final day at Watford, in his preferred central role, it just didn’t happen for him. Somewhere, Steve Bruce is having a big bloody chuckle about that while he eats his fifth helping of pork pie sandwiches, the f–
Duncan Watmore can be congratulated for having the season we all should have realistically thought he’d churn out. The winger has a lot of experience to gain still, and struggles with nearly everything that doesn’t involve him running at goal. Watmore is an impact sub for now, no doubt, but that’s okay – 3 goals and 1 assist is a good record for a youngster who hasn’t yet found his way in the starting eleven.
Then there’s Jermain Defoe. All 15 league goals of Jermain Defoe. With a goal on average every 170 minutes (a stat not-so-far off from Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy), it’s a real shame the striker wasn’t called up for international duty again. Considering he was also snubbed out of the centre forward role by Dick Advocaat, it has been a worth-proving season for Defoe, and he’s done that. His goals alone have racked up 14 points for Sunderland, and his hat-trick at Swansea City in January epitomised how clinical he can be – 3 shots, 3 goals.
So there you go, that’s what I think, but I’m probably wrong. What do you think?