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OPINION: Perfect blend - balancing youth & experience in Sunderland’s squad crucial to success

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Jack Ross’ decision to balance Sunderland’s squad with a mixture of youth and experience looks to be paying off as this current Sunderland side feels like one we can really get behind!

Gillingham v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images

Over the past couple of months, Jack Ross and co. have been steadily rebuilding our squad. Whilst there were many requirements and criteria that needed to be fulfilled, a balance between youth and experience was one of the most important of these. So how did we do?

Well, pretty damn good if you ask me. Our leadership have carefully scouted and drafted in players who they knew would create a perfect blend, which will not only serve us well in the present - by offering different attributes and playing styles - but should also give us reason for optimism in the future.

The most obvious example of this is in the centre of our defence - which also, in a rather odd manner, is also an area we still need to further strengthen.

Earlier this summer we heard from Sheffield Star journalist, Chris Holt, about our new signing Glenn Loovens. Whilst Holt had many positive things to say about Loovens, one thing in particular stood out to me. He claimed that Loovens’ defensive partner, Tom Lees, became “one of the best central defenders in the Championship a couple of seasons ago because of the influence of Loovens beside him”.

What a tackle this was!
Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

If Loovens can have that same influence on our current crop of centre-halves, we could have one of the best back lines in the Championship, nevermind League One. Furthermore, I’m certain Jack Ross was aware of that fact when he sanctioned the deal to bring Loovens to The Stadium of Light.

Jack Baldwin, Alim Ozturk and Tom Flanagan were also drafted in this summer, all of whom should be approaching their prime fairly soon. Under the guidance of an experienced head like Loovens, they should be more than able to fulfil their potential, and perhaps exceed it. Baldwin in particular looks like an exceptional acquisition. Thus far he has looked a cut above at League One level and, at just 25 years old, and with a role model like Loovens alongside him, he could grow into a leading Championship defender.

That being said, Loovens has not exactly set pulses racing on the pitch this season. His lack of speed and limited passing ability have led many to question his performances, and rightly so.

With that in mind, an experienced centre-back or two, perhaps a few years younger and with a little more pace should be high on Jack Ross’ shopping list. However, we should not forget what Loovens offers off the pitch. He is a perfect role-model for our younger players; his experience and his character are invaluable to the whole squad, and I believe, with what we currently have available, we look a better, more organised unit with him on the pitch.

Gillingham v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Jack Baldwin has looked exceptional so far this season.
Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images

In midfield we can also see this “perfect blend” having a positive impact on the team. Our recruitment team worked hard to secure some real talent in the engine room. Importantly, we have some calm, experienced heads coupled with youthful enthusiasm and energy.

The addition of Dylan McGeouch, and the trust placed into Lee Cattermole by our new management provide steady heads, who are capable of dictating play through their positional sense and their ability to read the game. These sort of players are a perfect foil for our younger lads.

Ross dipped into the market to bring in Luke O’Nien and Max Power, two centre midfielders who are talented, but still have significant room to improve. Under the tutelage of players like Cattermole, who has spent most of his career as a top flight midfielder and many years as captain, and McGeouch, who was one of the best midfielders in Scotland last year, they have a golden opportunity to learn a thing or two.

On the field, Power and O’Nien seem more than willing to put in the leg work, something that we can’t expect from the likes McGeouch and Cattermole. Power and O’Nien’s energy complement perfectly what Cattermole and McGeouch offer, meaning Sunderland have a great mix in the centre of the park.

Gillingham v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Power brings energy to Sunderland’s midfield.
Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images

Disregarding our injury woes, our forward line is also looking good. Maja has shown himself to have a great touch and turn in the area, and a good eye for goal. But one thing the young man arguably lacks is a physical side and the ability to hold up a ball (although this is already improving).

Enter Charlie Wyke. Our new big man is hardly old himself - at just 25 he has his prime ahead, but even now he has extensive experience of this league and offers something very different to Maja in his playing style.

This season I’m sure we will see them rotated dependent upon fitness and opposition, and in some cases we might even see them start together. But in the long run, there’s no reason why Maja can’t learn a thing or two from Wyke’s style.

A bulked up Maja, capable of using his body effectively to hold up the ball and challenging in the air, paired with his current abilities would see him develop into a very competent forward even at Championship level and perhaps beyond.

It is clear that our business this summer was done with one eye on the future. Players with unfulfilled potential or approaching their prime were drafted in alongside seasoned pros, who still have a lot to offer the team both in terms of playing ability and mentoring their younger teammates.

This could prove to be a very smart move that could save us dropping big fees on players should we return to the Championship. Instead, we will have a squad more than capable of competing and one which would require only a few shrewd additions.

I for one cannot wait to see the likes of Baldwin, Power and Maja in their prime, and with the mentorship that they now have, I’m sure they will be key members of the spine of our team for the next few years.