Talk this morning suggests Sunderland and England U19s midfielder Elliot Embleton is a target for cash-strapped National League side Hartlepool United.
With rumours abound that the County Durham club are about to go into administration, Craig Harrison will be looking towards the bigger clubs in the North East to do Pools a favour this January as he looks to strengthen his squad, and it’s believed that young prospect Embleton tops his list of potential targets.
Embleton came off the bench on Saturday during our 2-0 FA Cup defeat to Middlesbrough before completing a full ninety minutes for Elliott Dickman’s Sunderland U23s side in their victory over Derby County, a game in which Embleton received the Roker Report man of the match.
With lower-league clubs undoubtedly sniffing around Sunderland’s top prospects this January, it gives Chris Coleman a decision to make - does he keep the likes of Embleton on Wearside, continuing to feature them as part of his first team as the season progresses, or does he grant these players loan moves away from the club in order for them to play regular first team football at a level where they should be able to comfortably thrive?
For some time now Sunderland’s Academy of Light has been criticised for not providing enough players capable of making the step up to the first team squad.
While there have been notable success stories, namely Jordan Henderson and Jordan Pickford, for the most part Sunderland fans have seen precious little return from the many promising and successful youth sides the club have developed over the years.
To give the Academy its due, in recent years - and in particular this season - academy graduates such as George Honeyman and Lynden Gooch have become first team regulars, but it is debatable whether they would have been afforded the opportunity if the club’s finances were not in such a parlous state.
The question we must surely be asking then, especially given the club’s disastrous financial situation and the likelihood that big spending on player recruitment seems unlikely any time soon, is how do Sunderland start to develop more players capable of progressing to our first team?
The seemingly obvious answer would be to look to the loan system and begin to make better use of affording our young players a chance to play senior football.
Sunderland’s academy system is unquestionably capable of producing talented young players, and they’ve proved themselves suitably impressive as to attract highly rated prospects such as Joel Asoro and Josh Maja.
However, there appears to have been a general reticence in recent years to allow the best of the club’s youth prospects to spend time away on loan, with focus seemingly given to the form of the U23 side rather than the development of players as senior prospects.
Promisingly, under Chris Coleman there seems to have been a shift towards allowing youth players to make use of loan opportunities - striker Andy Nelson’s move to Scottish Championship side Falkirk a great example. Perhaps then, the club ought to look at Nelson’s move as a blueprint for future loan opportunities and explore further relationships with Scottish sides.
While the standard of Scottish football may not be the highest, Scottish sides have produced several top quality Premier League players in recent years, with Virgil Van Dijk’s £75m move to Liverpool – after learning much of his trade at Celtic - emphasising the ability of Scottish clubs to develop and promote exciting young talent. Clearly then, the Scottish leagues provide a fantastic opportunity for talented youngsters to experience the different pressures and expectations of senior football.
Furthermore, given the limited resources of the vast majority of Scottish clubs, a long-term loan arrangement with an academy program of Sunderland’s size and quality seems likely to be highly appealing. Chelsea’s arrangement with Dutch outfit Vitesse Arnhem is a prime example of how such an arrangement can be hugely mutually beneficial and provide an excellent development opportunity for young players in a highly competitive, if less technically proficient, league.
Sunderland sides in recent years have been miserably lacking in pace and strength across the field. While some may deride the quality of football in the Scottish leagues, what cannot be questioned is the importance of athleticism and physicality in Scottish football. Therefore, it seems a perfect opportunity for Sunderland’s academy graduates to test themselves against the brand of physical football commonly employed by Championship and lower end Premier League teams rather than the more technical brand of football they might experience in U23 matches which ultimately lacks the same ferocity as professional, senior football.
This could provide players with an opportunity to improve their athleticism and strength to match the requirements of senior football, but equally provides Sunderland’s coaching hierarchy with crucial feedback about a young player’s ability to make the move into senior football an whether they look capable of potentially returning to the club’s first-team.
Perhaps Chris Coleman and the academy team might then look north of the border for opportunities to develop the next generation of Sunderland stars?