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Five key lessons from Sunderland's pre-season which must be addressed before Derby opener

Now that pre-season is over we can look forward to the real thing starting this Friday. But what have we learned from what we’ve seen and experienced in recent weeks?

Hibernian v Sunderland - Pre Season Friendly Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

We need a fit left-back... pronto!

Sunderland’s headache at left-back has been on-going for the best part of fourteen years - since Micky Gray left - and despite having three on the books currently, we’re still relatively unsure as to who is our first choice in that position going into the Championship season.

We can probably rule out Tommy Robson for the time being. He’s not been given a squad number and has barely featured as part of Simon Grayson’s plans during our pre-season campaign, so it's probably fair to assume that the club are going to try and get him a loan away at some point over the coming weeks.

Brendan Galloway, signed on loan from Everton, comes with glowing references from his parent club but, on the back of what I’ve seen from him in the games we’ve played in the last few weeks, I don’t feel overly convinced about him as a full-back and I think he’ll eventually prove to be a better centre half as the season draws on. He’s a big fella and doesn’t appear comfortable in possession of the ball, and one constant throughout the games in which he has played in is that he seems to struggle to defend against pace out wide.

Crystal Palace v Sunderland - Premier League
Bryan Oviedo may well be our best option at left back but he’s not fit.
Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Which leaves us with Bryan Oviedo, then, who despite being a very decent player has an incredibly sketchy injury record - one which has seen him miss the entirety of pre-season having suffered a knock whilst away with Costa Rica at the Gold Cup. When fit he’s almost certainly guaranteed to be our first choice left-back but that’s exactly the issue - he’s never fit.

I worry about playing Galloway there long term but he’ll have to do until Oviedo returns and is up to speed, which could be some weeks down the line yet.

Grabban is the most dynamic forward we have - build around him

Despite having only seen 68 minutes of him so far, I feel fairly confident in saying that Lewis Grabban is the better of the two forwards that we’ve signed this summer.

James Vaughan’s work-rate is undeniable but his inability to score in any of our five pre-season games - missing two penalties in the process - would suggest that there is a confidence issue with him in front of goal, and that he’d perhaps benefit from being taken from the limelight for a short while in order for him to settle in to life as a Sunderland player properly.

I do think that the former Bury man will offer us a fair bit over the course of the season but it’s a big move for him and in trying too hard he’ll make simple mistakes.

Though he was deployed on the right of our three-man attack this past Saturday, Grabban looked the man most suited to playing down the middle and I think we’d be wise to start him there on Friday against Derby. He’s deceptively quick for his size, he works hard and carries the ball well. We’ve seen very little in the way of evidence yet to suggest he’s a good goalscorer but it would be nice to see him play centrally against Derby to show us what he can do.

Ruiter should be our number one and needs to sign

I don’t like to slate new players, especially when all we’ve seen of them is a solitary pre-season performance in a meaningless game against decent opposition, but I wasn’t left feeling convinced by what I saw from Jason Steele on Saturday and I’d be disappointed if we go into the new season with him as our number one.

On the flip-side, however, I’m quite excited by the prospect of what Robbin Ruiter could offer us and definitely think that we’d be making a huge mistake if we aren’t able to secure him on a permanent basis.

Ruiter was our man of the match in the two games that he played for us last week and nothing about his ability worries me - he’s good in the air, has solid handling, makes important saves when it matters and has solid, varied distribution. He’s a well-rounded goalkeeper - and, if you don’t believe me, just read our chat from last week with an FC Utrecht fan site writer that admitted he felt Ruiter had no real weaknesses in his game.

Jason Steele will be fine as backup to Ruiter but he should be nowhere near our number one jersey - that should be reserved for the big Dutchman once he’s put pen to paper (hopefully) over the coming days.

Securing an attacking central midfielder should be a priority

My overall summation of pre-season when talking to a friend yesterday was that ‘we look absolutely toothless without Khazri or Lens in the side’. I’m genuinely concerned about what losing either, or both, of them could mean to how we start life in the Championship.

The former PSV man has been genuinely terrific whenever he has played in recent weeks, and it’s no surprise that we’ve struggled to create chances and put them away without him on the pitch in our last two games.

Livingston v Sunderland - Pre Season Friendly Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

He’s off to Besiktas, and good luck to him - you can hardly blame Lens for wanting to escape a season in the Championship on Wearside for a few years in the sun playing for a title-winning Champions League side.

Aiden McGeady is a useful player but he’s not going to win us too many games on his own, and our other options - the likes of Gooch and Honeyman - just aren’t quite up to scratch at that level yet and need to be introduced sparingly across the many games that we’ll play over the course of the next ten months.

We need to make signing a central attacking midfielder a priority if we are going to mount anything resembling a promotion challenge next season - failing to properly replace our best forwards could see us struggle from the get-go.

We’re going to need a slice of luck on Friday

Our inconsistency throughout pre-season suggests that our team isn’t quite ready for competitive football yet, and beating an experienced Championship side like Derby will, at this stage, probably be difficult.

The drama surrounding Saturday’s defeat and the Darron Gibson fiasco will undoubtedly make Simon Grayson’s job even harder going into the game, but we just have to hope that training this week is positive and we can even add one or two new players that can come straight into the side and make a difference. With the Sky cameras on us and with an easily-agitated home crowd behind them, our team need to work hard from the off in order to set the tone for the rest of the season.

Having seen a fair bit off the team in recent weeks, I remain unconvinced that much will change. I’ll be crossing my fingers and hoping for the best.

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