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Black Cats Analects: Serious Business

‘Tis the season to get competitive!

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Imagine your club signs a once mega-in-demand midfielder whose comparisons to Patrick Viera and Claude Makélélé led to daily links with every major club across the continent.  Now imagine your club has recruited that midfielder for only £5 million without any decline in form.  Furthermore, imagine that midfielder is returning to your club with full eagerness because he wants to come back.

Most clubs can only imagine that.  Sunderland AFC is not one of them.  Not so long as Yann M’Vila still wants to be a footballer anyway.

All romanticism aside, the impending (at time of writing) permanent recruitment of Yann M’Vila is perhaps the most symbolic signing of the past ten years, should it be completed.  Again – the most symbolic, and not just because the Frenchman is the accomplished player that he is, but because his return shows an intent from Sunderland that the club is willing to match the competitive standards of the 2016/2017 English Premier League season.

In case you hadn’t noticed, EPL clubs have spent near an estimated half a billion pounds in transfer dealings through this summer window.  There is still a month to go.  Reality is dead in football: this is the league where (theoretically) any player can be bought for any price by any club; where every club knows that another can afford to pay out the ludicrous, and where rational market value is loaded with misreport.  If the EPL doesn’t exist, Paul Pogba isn’t worth £100 million (you get the idea).  This is a league that has monopolised its own comparative status over the likes of Serie A and the Bundesliga.

And if Sunderland wishes to remain a part of that status and success, the club must be willing to compete within its league’s financial expectations.  The signing of Yann M’Vila would certainly go some way to doing that.  Because now, under these new financial circumstances the EPL has profited from, £5 million for a player within the final year of his contract is not as unreasonable as it would have been, say, a few years ago.  And a few years ago, Sunderland probably wouldn’t pay it.

What makes this signing symbolic, however, is the status of the player himself.  We, as supporters, don’t need to exaggerate M’Vila.  He was an interceptor and chance creator of great efficiency last season, and when the dust settled on that campaign, we knew we’d seen another real gem on Wearside.  And so, after watching the likes of Djibril Cissé, Danny Welbeck and Danny Rose contribute as loanees without any follow-up, it is a huge relief to see Sunderland continue its good work in rehiring successful loan players (a’la Fabio Borini) with Yann M’Vila.  Anybody else – for £5 million – would have been inadequate by comparison.

Not only that, but if Sunderland do not recruit M’Vila, you can be sure another club in this league will.  That brings us to the perception of where Sunderland should realistically look to compete at in the English Premier League.

Leicester City won the Premier League last season.  That actually happened, and it will likely prove to be the catalyst of a turning of the tide in the EPL this season.  As mentioned; because of the television rights deal pumping free money into the league, and because of the EPL’s commendably fair distribution model for its clubs, many of the perceived ‘elite’ clubs no longer hold their expansive financial advantage over their competition.  Just look at how that uncertainty affected last season; when one club won the league title fresh out of a relegation scrap, while another spent £92 million only to be relegated.

The point here is that any one of the twenty clubs in the EPL can realistically afford Yann M’Vila (from fee to wages) – and they know he is capable of good form in this country.  More so than that, this also suggests that we are headed into perhaps the most open and competitive season in recent memory.  Leicester City have already broken the glass ceiling; Southampton and West Ham United weren’t too far behind; the once top-six mainstays Everton now clamour for as many points as West Bromwich Albion, Crystal Palace and AFC Bournemouth.

The door on the Premier League is, to some extent, sealed shut to many clubs in the country now; and those fortunate to remain within it are now part of a free-for-all for the title, for the European competition slots and for the unwanted relegation spots (of course, bar the more established clubs).  Cast aside any talk of preferred expectations – due to the partial financial equality scattered across the league, Sunderland can consider any and every team this season as a competitive equal now.  We could finish anywhere, so long as we stump up the money to match that competition.

And speaking of competition: that brings us to Everton – and Lamine Koné.

Ronald Koeman and Everton could offer £15 million for Lamine Koné (as is reported).  They could offer £25 million.  It doesn’t matter.  No sum of money matters because this is one defender Sunderland simply cannot afford to lose.

With the greatest respect to John O’Shea, Koné has been a much needed improvement to Sunderland’s long-stagnating defence.  It’s no argument that Koné was one of the better performing centre backs in the Premier League last season (despite his fewer matches played).  He was an aerial powerhouse incapable of error, tailor-suited to achieve in this league and his performance against Everton in May bordered on being the best individual performance of the season.

The downside of this upturning form is this hanging £15 million rumour over the defender’s head.  Whether or not Everton back out, there is still the concern that another club will enquire (again – most can).  That’s the consequence of having above average players for once.  However it is critical to Sunderland’s future prospects that Lamine Koné not be sold this season or even in seasons to come.  At least, not to an EPL club that could then achieve at our expense.

Historically, Chairman Ellis Short has (probably reluctantly) overseen the sales of several in-demand players at this club.  Jordan Henderson and Simon Mignolet arguably could or should have been retained; the likes of Darren Bent and Asamoah Gyan differ on account of their own compromising decisions; whereas others, such as Stéphane Sessègnon, you could fairly say was past his best.

But to sell any of our better players to another EPL club now would be wholly reckless.  As mentioned, it is a disintegrating line that separates a top-half tabled club from an underachieving one in this league.  If Ronald Koeman intends on leading Everton into European competition – and requires Lamine Koné to do that – then Sunderland should seriously work to retain such an asset immediately, and do away with the lure of an eight-figure sale.

These past few days have brought two transfer rumours with similar curiosities.  When we see that Yann M’Vila is in talks to return, it makes us ask just how competitive Sunderland wants to be this season.  And, when we see that Lamine Koné is linked with a move away, it unfortunately also makes us ask just how competitive Sunderland wants to be this season.  For both transfer dealings to happen would be horribly contradictive and, really, counterproductive to a season where the strongest foundations in the squad need to be built upon, not torn down.

We have one more month to show what our intentions are for this upcoming season; a season that can be expected to be as unpredictable as the last.  With more and more EPL clubs paying unjustified transfer sums for their newest recruits, we are inevitably headed into a campaign riddled with the uncertainties of a more level playing field, where any team could potentially finish anywhere.  It is up to Sunderland now to ensure that the only remaining certainties are that the best players are coming in, and our best players are staying in.