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OPINION: Is Sunderland’s current squad better than the one that got relegated last season?

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Sunderland have dropped a level whilst simultaneously bringing in players that are proven in the third tier. Would the current squad have done better than the one that got relegated last season, though?

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Goalkeepers

Right, this one is extremely easy! The tragic trio of Robbin Ruiter, Jason Steele, and Lee Camp are enough to make any football fan wince - never mind ones who paid real money to watch them week in, week out.

Ruiter probably looked the better of the three, but to say I am delighted to have a new first choice goalkeeper in the lanky shape of Jon McLaughlin is the understatement of the century.

The Scot has impressed so far this season - not by his extraordinary actions, but by his sheer competence in performing his role. For example, McLaughlin can dive to both sides AND only handles the ball inside the box - incredible!

On the evidence of what we’ve seen so far from McLaughlin, he looks like a shrewd signing, and we can say safely that he’s a better option between the sticks than the players we had in that position last season.

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Centre Backs

We saw a number of torrid performances from our defence last season. On paper, our centre back options looked reasonably solid for that level: the experience of John O’Shea and Marc Wilson; Lamine Kone’s clear ability (as shown under Big Sam), and the youthful promise of loanees Jake Clarke-Salter and Tyias Browning. That promise stayed firmly on paper, though.

A complete overhaul in this position has brought about some better results, although it’s still important to realise we are playing in a division where players aren’t being brought in for tens of millions of pounds.

We have so far seen mostly Glenn Loovens and Jack Baldwin at the heart of the defence, with the latter genuinely impressing with his no-nonsense style of defending intertwined with the qualities of a modern day centre back.

Baldwin’s ability to carry the ball out from the back is what has changed our style of defending most, and that’s a crucial point to remember. Instead of sitting deep because we have to, we now have a player who not only has pace but the qualities to move into midfield and push the rest of our team further up the pitch.

Dutchman Loovens appears to be a capable leader and brings everything you’d expect an experienced player to, but I can’t help but think that had John O’Shea been putting in the same performances, he wouldn’t have been taken as kindly to.

Alim Ozturk has probably been the slowest out of the blocks where new signings are concerned, although his performance against AFC Wimbledon showed there might be a footballer in there somewhere.


Full Backs

The only real difference in this area is the arrival of Reece James, who so far has shown promising signs, although Bryan Oviedo is set to be first choice in that position.

The full backs are expected to fulfill more attacking duties than last season to align with Jack Ross’ preferred system, particularly on the left where the player basically operates as a winger. The right back usually sits deep alongside the central defenders as part of a back three - something which Ross is keen to perfect with each and every passing game.

The ability of the players in our squad allows us to play this more expressive style of football in League One, but the attacking instincts of Oviedo and Matthews often left us in trouble when in the Championship due to the fact that the central defenders alongside them just weren’t capable of playing in a less-traditional system.

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Centre Mids

In central areas our midfield was usually bypassed last season as the defence looked for early balls up to the often-isolated forwards, which usually meant we’d concede possession for large periods of the game.

This season we appear to have completely changed tact as we instead look to dominate games, and utilising our midfield is becoming a much bigger part of what we’re trying to do in both building attacks and retaining possession.

The arrivals of Dylan McGeouch and Max Power are a clear indication of this - we’ve signed players who are dynamic, and are very comfortable with the ball at their feet.

The recently-signed pair both possess more passing ability in their weak foot than any of our midfielders last season, so it’s fair to say we’ve improved in that department.

The depth we have is also comforting, as youngsters like Bali Mumba are afforded their chance to shine, whilst the differing style has allowed Lee Cattermole a new lease of life as he seeks to regain a reputation that was desperately harmed by two successive relegations.

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Wingers

Chris Maguire! The hard-working Scottish sh*thouse is quickly becoming a fan-favourite at Sunderland with his tenacious brand of creative football, putting to bed any of the myths surrounding his attitude and ability which came with him when he left his old club Bury in the summer. This lad looks like a quality signing that suits our style down to the ground.

We are blessed with great depth on the wings, although it will be difficult for any players currently injured or out of favour to cement their places in the team with Gooch and Maguire starting the season so well.

Aiden McGeady and Duncan Watmore - season ticket holders in the physio room - look set to be given chances as and when they are ready in a team rapidly gaining momentum.

Much like with our central midfielders, last season the lads who played out wide were creatively stifled and, in truth, didn’t really have much to hit. Lynden Gooch was ignored for large parts of last season and you have to wonder if we’d have had a better season with him playing every week.

Callum McManaman left to join Wigan during pre-season but, again, he didn’t play a great deal last year and when he did he flattered to deceive. Joel Asoro was a regular and has since left to join Swansea City, but in Jerome Sinclair I think we have a very decent replacement that will undoubtedly prove himself here at Sunderland if he can stay fit.

So whilst our options out wide haven’t actually changed a great deal, you have to admit that the switch to a more attacking and fluid system will ultimately benefit the form of those same players over the long run.

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Strikers

Speaking of strikers last season was a touchy subject, especially whenever Lewis Grabban’s name was mentioned, and while Josh Maja is certainly scoring at a prolific rate we have no one up there who could compete with Grabban’s record in the Championship.

We are yet to see our new number nine Charlie Wyke in action, but from what we hear he seems to suit the style of League One down to the ground. Whether he’s capable of hitting the same heights in the Championship remains to be seen, particularly since he’s never played above the third tier so far in his short career.

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How would we fare in the Championship season 2017/18?

On paper our squad isn’t really that much better than the one we had last season, but the togetherness and environment that Jack Ross and his team have created would certainly give us a much better chance of survival in the league above with the players that we have now.

Momentum is huge in football. We experienced the negative effects of it last season and may well experience the positive side of it in the coming months. For that reason, it is difficult to predict whether we would be quite performing to the same level.

A solid base is often the starting point to a solid team that is hard to beat. The improvement in our goalkeeping situation alongside the arrival of Jack Baldwin at the heart of the defence are enough to convince me that we would have had enough to survive relegation.

Injuries cost us a lot last season as we struggled to find options in our depleted squad. Our recruitment this summer seems to have strengthened our depth as we now have options all over the field - we’ve already been hit with a lot of injuries and those coming in have fitted into the system with relative ease.

The young lads we used last season - Honeyman, Gooch, and Maja in particular - have really grown into their leading roles in the team so far in League One.

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All in all, I do think we have improved as a team following our relegation, but I don’t think we’d have pulled up any trees with this squad last season. A top-half finish, I believe, would be well out of the question but I think these lads would have been capable of having a very unspectacular season, something us Sunderland fans aren’t used to by finishing somewhere in the middle.

We have recruited well for League One this summer, and while I am completely on board with the players we have brought in, I don’t believe many of them would be capable of performing at the top end of the Championship if we somehow manage to get promoted at the first time of asking this season.

Jon McLaughlin, Jack Baldwin, Bryan Oviedo, Reece James, Max Power, Dylan McGeouch, George Honeyman, Lynden Gooch and Chris Maguire are all players who would form a solid base of a Championship team in my opinion, but there would be a desperate need for some Championship experience to be added to the squad.

In short, we’ve recruited specifically for the league that we are in - and that’s fine by me.