The Experienced Head: Nigel Pearson (8/1 - SkyBet)
Current Club: Unemployed
Previous Clubs: Carlisle United, Southampton, Leicester City, Hull City, Derby County
Honours: Championship, 2013-14; League One: 2008-09,
Style of Play: Pearson has favoured a 4-4-2 for much of his career; the 'Leicester tactic' if you will. Claudio Ranieri's title winning team largely borrowed from Pearson's 14-15 side. That means an energetic and high pressing midfield two, one traditional and one inverted winger, and two interchangeable strikers, with one often dropping deeper to link between attack and midfield.
Despite some encouraging performances, Leicester found results hard to come by; they had won just four games by April. But Pearson stayed true to his system, with back-to-back wins against West Ham and West Brom providing hope of survival. They were too close for comfort though, and Pearson, perhaps boldly, opted to switch to a three-man defence for the visit of Swansea. He had experimented with a five-man defence earlier in the season with little success, but that was arguably a negative, rather than pro-active change. Now, Jamie Vardy and Jeffrey Schlupp formed a pacey left wing partnership. Vardy drove inside, creating space for Schlupp to attack from deep. Leicester were able to control the game with greater regularity, and were much more solid in defence as a result, taking 16 points from 21 following the switch.
Pearson returned to the 4-4-2 at Derby with limited success, but has certainly shown that he can adapt and change when necessary.
Transfer Policy: Pearson has no definitive transfer policy. At Hull, experienced campaigners like Robert Koren were joined by young talent like Cameron Stewart with The Tigers needing to significantly reduce their wage budget upon relegation.
Pearson enjoyed greater financial freedom upon his return to Leicester, but preferred to target unwanted players at bigger clubs and relative unknowns. Danny Drinkwater, Ritchie De Laet and Matty James joined from Manchester United, while Jamie Vardy, Anthony Knockaert and Riyad Mahrez joined from non-league and France's second division respectively.
At Derby, without right-hand-man Steve Walsh by his side, experienced Championship talent Matej Vydra and Ikechi Anya, along with Manchester United youngster James Wilson, were the only significant additions to an already strong squad.
Assessing Pearson's transfer policy is not quite straightforward. He has worked alongside scouting supremo Walsh for much of his career, taking him to Leicester, then Hull, and then back to Leicester. His most trusted lieutenant, Walsh has been responsible for the signing of some of English football's greatest successes; Vardy, Mahrez, Michael Essien and Didier Drogba, to name a few.
The main issue is whether Pearson is too dependent on Walsh. “Nigel makes the decisions,” Walsh said, “but I would say he makes informed decisions based on a lot of knowledge from a lot of people, so it’s a real collegiate approach.” It would be naive to believe that Pearson merely agrees to sign a player, and foolish to suggest that he plays no role in the identification of targets, or at least the necessary qualities that they must possess. But it's also clear that Walsh and the scouting team were vital to his success.
One positive is that Pearson can clearly successfully work under a Director of Football model. Simon Wilson's role as Chief Football Officer remains unclear, but it suggests that the club is attempting to build a structure independent of the manager, a structure that remains constant upon the departure of a manager à la Southampton. On the other hand, Walsh joining Pearson at Sunderland is extremely unlikely. Would he be able to form a similar relationship with Wilson, or indeed a new DOF?
Previous Championship Experience: Like Simon Grayson, Pearson is a vastly experienced Championship manager. He boasts an impressive 113 wins from 255 games, with 72 draws and 70 defeats.
Pearson's first taste of the Championship came at Southampton, where he oversaw a last-day escape with a 3-2 victory over Sheffield United. He was soon replaced and joined Leicester, ironically relegated by Pearson's Saints.
The Foxes returned to the Championship at the first time of asking with a club record 96 points, losing just four games all season. Their quest for back-to-back promotions was ended by a penalty shoot-out play-off semi final defeat to Cardiff, with Yann Kermorgant famously failing with a 'Panenka' attempt. With Pearson's relationship with chairman Milan Mandaric becoming more and more strained, he departed the club to join newly-relegated Hull.
Despite financial restrictions, Pearson led The Tigers to an 11th placed finish. Hull started the following season strongly, sitting one point off the play-offs, but Pearson requested to talk to Leicester with a view to returning to the Midlands. They finished 9th, reaching the play-off semi final the following season where they were famously defeated by Watford. Undeterred, they sealed a return to the Premier League the following season.
Pearson's most recent experience was a sorry spell at Derby, where he was sacked after just nine games in charge following a bust-up with owner Mel Morris.
Pros: He can handle himself. And he can fight off a pack of wild dogs...
And Ellis Short wouldn't have to pay compensation.
Nigel Pearson knows what it takes to take a team up to the Premier League. He also knows what it takes to keep a team in the Premier League after completing a miraculous recovery with Leicester in 2015. The Foxes went into April with just four wins to their name, but 19 points from eight games, culminating in a 0-0 draw at the Stadium of Light, saw them complete a great escape of their own. With financial constraints at the club, Sunderland are likely to face an immediate relegation battle should they return to the Premier League at the first time of asking. That may play into Pearson's hands should he want the job.
He also has experience of managing in a perilous financial situation. Pearson joined Hull in 2010 following their relegation from the Premier League, with the club £35M in debt. Chairman Adam Pearson was tasked with reducing the club's wage bill from £40M to £15M. Pearson was restricted in the summer transfer market, with only Jay Simpson joining for a fee; free agents and loan signings made up the rest of Hull's business. Despite this, he led the club to an 11th placed finish, setting a club record with a 17 game away unbeaten run.
Pearson has an old school mentality. Some call him tough, others a bully. Maybe the club needs somebody to kick it up the arse; somebody who will not let the players do as they please. It's clear that certain players stopped playing for David Moyes last season; it's hard to imagine that happening under Pearson.
He was an extremely popular figure at Leicester, and many of the players felt a sense of loyalty to him and his players. They liked his methods, including the fact that he gave them a voice and, in the case of the more senior members of the squad, courted their opinion. Like it or not, millionaire players need to be made to feel special to keep them happy, and Pearson seems able to tow the line between soft touch and suck up.
Cons: A tough personality is all well and good, but Pearson has shown a nasty side and stepped over the mark on occasion. He told a Leicester fan to "fuck off and die" in December 2014, and later refused to apologise, defending the remark:
I am very keen to protect my players and myself and I’m more than happy to stick up for myself in that situation and, more importantly protect my players, that’s the root cause of the problem.
I think our supporters do support the players and get behind them. I understand the frustrations from lack of results. But questioning players’ application and commitment is not the right way to assess what’s happening.
With many Sunderland fans feeling detached from David Moyes, a manager picking fights with supporters would certainly not help the atmosphere around the club. But was he simply defending his team, or was it something more sinister? Further evidence may suggest the latter. He called one journalist a "prick", while bizarrely labeling another "an ostrich." And let's not forget the time he choked and wrestled James McArthur.
His fiery nature also extended to Derby chairman Mel Morris, who suspended the manager after a boardroom row, reported to be over Morris' use of drones to observe training. He was sacked soon after, leaving the club with just one win from nine league games. Whether the chairman should 'spy' on his manager is another debate, and certainly paints his dismissal in a different light.
It depends on whether Short and Bain are willing to accept Pearson as who he is. Would they consider him to be too much hassle? Is he a man that they, and the fans, would want at Sunderland?
Pearson would also not have Steve Walsh by his side should he join Sunderland, with the scouting supremo now at Everton. With Walsh responsible for many of Leicester's biggest transfer hits, would Pearson be able to recruit successfully without him? This is a crucial transfer window for Sunderland; they must get it right.
The Young Contender: Garry Monk (5-1, SkyBet)
Current Club: Unemployed
Previous Clubs: Swansea City, Leeds United
Style of Play: Monk's philosophy is based on a patient, possession-based style of play which builds out from the back. Typically lining up in a 4-2-3-1, Monk looks for his side to be fluid and flexible in their play, particularly in midfield, where the three are expected to rotate to create attacking space. This involves one 'free' midfielder, often the 'number 10', who roams between the lines and exploits the space. Gylfi Sigurdsson has excelled in that area for a number of years at Swansea, while Pablo Hernandez registered six goals and eight assists from the 'number 10' position for Leeds last season.
Monk encourages his side to play with extreme width. Only Huddersfield, Ipswich and Wigan attacked less through the middle than Leeds last season, according to whoscored.com. Space, and one-on-one opportunities, importantly, are created out wide through the striker and number 10's occupation of the central defenders, while attacking full-backs push the opponent's wingers towards their own goal.
In defence, Monk typically instructs his side to revert to a rigid 4-4-1-1. Two banks of four form a block forcing the opposition out wide, while two central midfielders drop beyond the wide players to restrict the space between the lines.
In reality, the impact of Monk's philosophy was mixed. They scored more goals than in any season since 2011, while Chris Wood's 27 were more than double his previous tally. But Leeds were often restricted in games. Only Rotherham and Ipswich took less shots per game, while 14 teams created more chances. Their 58 goals were just the 12th most as a result, with only Wood reaching double figures.
They fared better defensively, with only three teams conceding less goals. Rob Green's 15 clean sheets was the best effort by a Leeds 'keeper in six seasons.
Overall, it paints a picture of a manager who was perhaps too cautious in his approach to games, with one fan commenting: "I think Monk has been great over the season but his defensive tactics and stubborness to change things are something he needs to reflect on at the end of the season."
It's hard to imagine that he would be able to play expansive, attacking football at Sunderland without a major overhaul.
Transfer Policy: Like Pearson at Leicester, Monk worked within a transfer and scouting team at Swansea. The structure, led by Dave Leadbeater, Tim Henderson and George Foster, was overseen by chairman Huw Jenkins in close consultation with Monk.
The trio, who have scouts underneath them, report back to Jenkins and compile the club’s ‘black book’ of players, a ready-made list of players who can be tracked over a period of time.
Eder had been followed for two years. Bafetimbi Gomis was similarly tracked before he signed last summer, while Jack Cork had been on the list since the first days of Brendan Rodgers. The system was designed to work whoever holds the managerial position. Michael Laudrup was said to be reluctant to accept this approach on occasion, but Monk showed a willingness to work within the system.
Transfers only happened when Monk and Jenkins were in agreement. Monk had the players he wanted targeted and added to the list, going through the same scouting process, but also fed off the existing players monitored by the club, while the dealing of fees and salaries is left with the chairman.
Monk's additions at Leeds consisted of familiar faces, established domestic players and signings from the continent brought in on a modest budget. Pablo Hernandez, Matt Grimes, Kyle Bartley and Modou Barrow had all worked under Monk at Swansea, while Pontus Jansson and Hadi Sacko proved to be inspired loan signings as he looked to change the club's identity.
Previous Championship Experience: Unlike Pearson, Monk has managed just one season in the Championship, replacing the departed Steve Evans at Leeds. He was allowed to add to the squad, albeit on a restricted budget, bringing in 11 first-team players as Leeds looked to change their fortunes.
Monk started poorly, winning just one of his first six games as he adapted to his new side. But 34 points from his next 16 games, the 3rd best form in the league, saw Leeds climb to 5th by Christmas. Their superb form continued, winning nine of their next 16 to sit just eight points behind second-placed Brighton with eight games to play.
Then disaster struck. Leeds won just one of their last eight games to finish five points outside of the play-offs in 7th. Only Rotherham, Preston and QPR were in worse form.
They finished with a record of 22 wins, 9 draws and 15 defeats. Their 7th placed finish was their highest since 2011. They achieved their highest goal tally since 2011 and kept the highest amount of clean sheets for six seasons. 14 home wins was the most since the 1989-90 Division 2 title-winning season, while 22 wins was the most ever in a Championship campaign (since its re-branding) and the most in a single season since that 89-90.
Monk arguably overachieved in the grand scheme of things, but ultimately, failing to qualify for the play-offs considering their position and fixture list must go down as a failure.
Pros: Like Pearson, Ellis Short would not have to pay to secure Monk's services. Every penny counts in the club's financial situation.
Monk also has Premier League experience, saving Swansea from relegation before leading them to 8th place, and a record points tally, in his one full season in Wales. He was ultimately sacked after a run of just one win in 11 games, but it could be argued that he was not given the opportunity to change the club's fortunes.
While Monk oversaw a disappointing collapse that must go down as a failure, the fact remains that he helped to bring stability to the basket case that is Leeds United and arguably exceeded expectations in finishing above the likes of Norwich, Derby and Aston Villa. Perhaps more than anything, Sunderland need a manager who can stabilise the club. Monk bucked the trend at Leeds by becoming the only one of seven managers or head coaches to avoid the sack from Massimo Cellino.
Seventh place season was the club’s best finish since 2011, and 75 points was their highest total for 11 years. They scored more goals than in any season since 2011 and Rob Green's 15 clean sheets was the club's highest tally in six seasons. Monk's 22 wins were the most ever in the Championship and the most since the 1989-90 Division 2 campaign, while his 14 home wins were the most since that same season.
He has certainly left Leeds in a strong position.
Cons: Despite leading Leeds to their best season in years, their campaign must ultimately go down as a failure. Monk arguably exceeded expectations, but winning just one of his last eight games to fall out of the play-offs was extremely poor. One fan commented that:
When the games started to really matter in April and May, we lost virtually all of them. The fact is, Monk seems vulnerable under pressure.
It was reported that Monk departed Elland Road as he was disappointed by the prospect of a 12-month renewal and had not been given enough assurance that a more substantial contract was coming. Owner Andrea Radrizzani "made it clear that his intention was to exercise the Club's option to extended the Manager's contract for another 12 months and immediately begin negotiations for a longer term deal." Either way, there was a clear disagreement between the two parties. Was Monk unwilling to commit to Leeds; and is that a personality that Sunderland need at the club, particularly when the need for stability is greater than any recent time? On the other hand, was Monk misled by Radrizzani? With ex managers accusing Ellis Short of making false promises, will Monk be able to form a strong working relationship with the Sunderland owner? Short's absence, with Martin Bain handed the responsibility of running the club on a day-to-day basis, may negate that issue however, although any final decisions are still likely to be made by Short.
The club's financial situation may also deter Monk. Middlesbrough are said to be interested in his services, and the Teesiders represent a more stable club with a greater chance of returning to the Premier League at the first time of asking. The Sunderland Echo has reported that Monk is open to an offer from Sunderland, although it's hard to see the club as a more attractive proposition than Boro.