Recently, myself and a few other Roker Report writers were planning a roundtable piece in which we were discussing the retention of Dylan McGeouch and Reece James. As the conversation evolved, our discussion moved onto the fact that the glaringly obvious issues within our side are particularly easy to spot - even from the perspective of a fan in the stands.
The side clearly lacks athleticism, strength, and pace. The lack of robustness in defence and dynamism on the ball is an issue that has plagued us for some time as a club. As such, many fans were hoping that the new ownership’s recruitment team would be able to identify these weaknesses and address them last summer.
Alas, that simply wasn’t the case.
Tom Flanagan and Jack Baldwin are both decent enough defenders; however, in my opinion, they simply lack the physicality and brutishness required to marshal a defence. Put either one of them alongside a player like Portsmouth’s Matt Clarke and we’d have been laughing, yet neither was able to stand up and resolutely lead a defence that seemed to worsen as the campaign progressed.
Furthermore, it can be argued that our central midfield options were all incredibly similar in terms of what they brought to the side. Lee Cattermole, Max Power, Grant Leadbitter, and Dylan McGeouch are all similar players in terms of harrying well and recycling play nicely, but all struggled to take the ball forward with purpose and make things happen in the final third. McGeouch was technically the best of the bunch - despite fitness issues - but he needed a mobile, physical companion alongside him in the middle of the park in order to to compliment his talents.
George Honeyman was tasked with playing in the number ten role where he should have provided a link between our rather flat central midfield and our strikers, but unfortunately he just didn’t have the required skill set to be an effective creative outlet. Again, his determination, work-rate, and tenacity was there for all to see, but he struggled when tasked with linking play and creating chances in the opposition’s final third.
In turn, we simply relied on Aiden McGeady’s mercurial talents to change games for us, and he more often that not did just that. But that isn’t a particularly sustainable approach to games, and ultimately Sunderland never developed another effective style of play.
Sunderland will likely need to make a good number of signings this summer. With only one senior goalkeeper on the books, no real right back to speak of, loan players exiting the club, and the likely chance that several more players will leave this summer, the club will need to bring in close to ten players in order to ensure that they have a squad capable of securing promotion.
However, when tasked with bringing fresh faces into the club, it is clear for all to see that first and foremost Sunderland must acquire a spine of players capable of dominating the opposition. We need at least one physically imposing central defender adept at marshalling a defence at this level; we need at least one athletic midfielder capable of competing aerially and also providing some mettle in the middle; we also need more pace in the final third in order to enhance our attacking play.
These are key positions that many fans have highlighted as being necessary for the last several transfer windows - Sunderland simply have to ace their transfer business this summer in order to assemble a side capable of securing promotion.
The current uncertainty surrounding a potential takeover of the club doesn’t help matters in terms of recruitment, either. However, long-term you would hope that this added investment would be extremely beneficial for the club.
Simply put: Sunderland cannot afford to repeat past mistakes and oversights. Jack Ross, too, will know this, and his reaction will make or break his management of the club.
Some have called for Ross’ head after a disappointing end to the season, but, as many have pointed out, considering the gaffer had to ask coaches to fill in during practice matches just twelve months ago, it is clear to see that the club has recovered under his guidance.
That being said, Ross is not absolved of all criticism. During difficult times was Ross too conservative? Probably. Should he have maybe better utilised certain players? Possibly. Does he deserve a chance to assess his shortcomings and make positive changes ahead of the new season? Definitely.
Good managers, whatever the industry, self-evaluate and understand that change is often necessary in the pursuit of success. Jack Ross will need to be both logical and bold in his management of the club this summer in order to ensure he brings success to Wearside.
He will have to cut the deadwood, bring in fresh talent that fills the aforementioned holes in our squad, and Ross will also have to understand his own shortcomings before coming up with a plan to bring improvement.
Sunderland must be simultaneously cautious and cut-throat this summer, but understanding simple faults could go a long way to securing success.