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The Challenges Ahead

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The warm-ups are done, the real business is about to begin begin - both players and management alike had better be ready for what lies ahead.

Sunderland v Harrogate Town - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

So, an unbeaten pre-season. Three matches, three victories, and now we turn our attention to the first official game of 2020/2021, the League Cup curtain-raiser against Hull.

After a long, empty summer we have finally been able to able to get back to debating on-pitch matters, and friendlies or not, it’s been a welcome relief to see the Lads back on the field of play once again.

And how did it pan out? Suffice it to say, we blew hot and cold. Against Gateshead and Carlisle, we started fairly sluggishly, improved gradually, and eventually won comfortably, whereas against Harrogate, the majority of the game saw us turn in a stodgy, disjointed, and generally flat performance, before a late Will Grigg goal spared us from what would’ve been an embarrassing draw. Typical Sunderland, you might say.

Sunderland v Harrogate Town - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

As always, reading too much into these friendly matches is always a hazardous business. With a fairly limited standard of opposition and games not being played anywhere close to the intensity of League One, it’s difficult to get a clear reading of the team’s true level, but nevertheless, I do think there are several things that we can glean from this triple-header of matches.

The positives? We appear to be reasonably solid defensively (the apparently imminent signing of Arbenit Xhemajli will add to that), Josh Scowen seems to have grabbed his opportunity after some frustrating times since his arrival, and Chris Maguire looks encouragingly sharp, and ready to make another significant contribution.

Sunderland v Carlisle : Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

It’s also hugely encouraging that, during a time when our academy has fallen into such a sorry state, the likes of Jack Diamond and Dan Neil have emerged as players of huge potential, and have certainly earned a spot in Phil Parkinson’s thinking for this season. Neil in particular has shone, his eye for a pass and general dynamism with the ball offering us a very promising glimpse of what might be, and some genuine optimism that our production line may not have ground to a halt completely.

On the other side of the coin, Denver Hume still needs to find another level or two (a final ball and some more defensive nous would be marvellous), a stark lack of pace in the attacking third is still hindering us, and there are huge doubts as to whether Charlie Wyke and Will Grigg, possibly augmented by the addition of a third striker, will be able to combine for enough goals to keep us at the right end of the table, never mind propel us into those crucial automatic spots. In three pre-season matches so far, Wyke and Grigg have bagged two goals apiece, but whether they can carry that form into what will be a long and challenging league campaign is a different problem entirely.

Another cause for concern is Lynden Gooch, who has not exactly caught the eye for the right reasons during these three matches. Indeed, he has often looked listless and somewhat timid with the ball at his feet. Let us hope that this is simply a case of needing to shake off the rust, rather than a more deep-seated problem, and that the American will hit his straps before long.

As I write, I cannot shake off a lingering fear that, just like last season, we will begin the new campaign in less-than-blistering fashion. Even more worryingly, you just know that, if that happens, the spin will be ‘We’ve got time to strengthen the squad and we’re working hard to get the right players in’. This simply won’t cut it. We knew the salary cap was coming and we failed to adapt our transfer dealings accordingly, leaving us scrambling to make up the lost ground. Do you sense any real urgency from the upper levels of the club to attack this league with everything we have? I certainly don’t, although I’m sure the players will be fired up and ready to go come the first game, and it will be absolutely imperative that they are able to detach themselves from the off-pitch turmoil and deliver when the standard of competition takes a major upturn.

Three wins out of three at this stage does not change the overall picture in the slightest. The pressure will be on from the first league game and everyone will be aware of it. We won’t be there to witness it in person, sadly, but that shouldn’t translate into sub-standard performances. The warm-ups are done, the real business is about to begin begin - both players and management alike had better be ready for what lies ahead.