During our time in the Premier League over the last decade or so, I would argue that we have tended to encounter problems with ten out of eleven positions.
The one constant throughout our most recent stint as a top-flight club was having a reliable goalkeeper.
We had seasons without goalscorers, many seasons without creative midfielders, and even more years of struggling through with a patchwork defence - but we never seemed to struggle for a decent ‘keeper between the sticks.
So many times over the last ten years, it has been our goalkeepers who have bailed us out and shone through the gloomy darkness at the Stadium of Light.
From Craig Gordon and Martin Fulop in 2007 to Simon Mignolet in 2010, and from Vito Mannone and Costel Pantilimon in 2014 to Jordan Pickford in 2017, we have always had a reliable stopper to call upon when needed.
When it comes to awards and recognition, Mignolet was our Player of the Year in 2013. In 2014, it was Mannone. In 2016, Pickford won our Young Player of the Year award. Both Mignolet and Pickford were sold for huge sums and continue to represent Liverpool’s two Premier League clubs. Even Craig Gordon came back from two years of rehabilitation to cement his place as Celtic’s number one.
None of this is a coincidence; it is a reflection of our strength in that position over the last decade. Until now.
Now we are left facing the consequences of Martin Bain and Ellis Short’s penny-pinching. We sold Vito Mannone for £2M to Reading and bought Jason Steele for £500k and Robbin Ruiter for free. We saved £1.5M and in the process have cost ourselves multiple points. And we haven’t even played half the season yet.
Many fans bemoaned this piece of transfer business when it happened, knowing that having a reliable ‘keeper like Vito would be a crucial over the course of a long, hard season. In hindsight, they have been proven right and Bain has been proven catastrophically wrong.
I feel bad for Jason Steele. He seems like a nice lad and I’m sure he’s trying hard to improve but the fact of the matter is he just isn’t good enough.
He seems to struggle in all areas. He doesn’t command his box with any authority and you can see our defenders look noticeably unsure if he will come for crosses or stay on his line.
When he does come for crosses, he doesn’t inspire confidence either. Perhaps most damningly, he’s not a particularly good shot-stopper – four or five times this season he’s failed to get to shots that would usually be bread-and-butter for a ‘keeper at this level.
Simon Grayson stuck by him for longer than expected, bizarrely speaking out in his defence just before dropping him against Bolton. In came Robbin Ruiter who hasn’t looked much better than his counterpart and who has hardly had the impact his pre-season performances promised.
Ruiter was at fault for Bolton’s first goal in that game, letting a tame shot from outside the area beat him at his near post. He grew into the game though and made several good saves to deny Bolton and looked a lot more commanding in the fixture away at Boro.
He seems to suffer from the same lack of confidence that Steele suffers from when it comes to crosses into the area. They both seem rooted to their six yard boxes and unwilling to take the initiative when it comes to dealing with the aerial bombardments that are so common in Championship games.
What does all this mean for the future?
Hopefully in the short-term, Ruiter keeps the number one spot. I don’t think he is the long-term answer to our goalkeeping problems but, at least for the short-term, he is a much better ‘keeper than Steele and should be given until January to prove his worth. With the inexperienced (and currently out on loan) Max Stryjek and the enigmatic Mika waiting in the wings, the goalkeeping position is definitely Ruiter’s to lose when the new manager (finally) comes in.
January brings with it a host of new opportunities. There are many areas in the team that we need to strengthen and seemingly very little money to achieve this.
If Ruiter has proven that he can fulfil the potential he showed in the pre-season games by January 1st, then we may be able to save what little transfer money we do have for other areas. Like bringing in a creative midfielder or a striker to help Grabban out, for example.
This would allow us to wait until next summer to bring in a ‘keeper that can continue the fine tradition of solid Sunderland number ones. Let’s just hope the goalkeepers we do have can keep us in the Championship until then.