In the summer of 2020, Sunderland signed eight new players to join their senior team, as Phil Parkinson entered his first full season as manager of the club.
Two were signed from the Premier League, three from the Championship, two from League Two, with just one coming from abroad. Arbenit Xhemajli was the sole player the club paid a fee for, with Dion Sanderson being the only loan, despite five being available.
Presently, the club sit outside the playoff positions and once again have changed managers mid-season, meaning another change around in playing staff is likely. The question is, how have the club’s summer signings performed so far this season?
Aiden O’Brien: 14 apps - 1 assist & 1 goal
Aiden O’Brien was brought in to add goals to a defensively solid side, but all he has to show for his Sunderland tenure so far is an array of missed sitters.
On signing the Republic of Ireland international, Phil Parkinson said, “Aiden can also play in a variety of attacking roles, which I feel is important for us,” which he meant literally as he even deployed him at left wing-back.
I find myself still trying to identify his key strengths, for a former wide man he does not beat players or create chances, he lacks the pace to play on the shoulder, but then he has also struggled to operate as a hold up man.
Some argue O’Brien, Will Grigg and Danny Graham have been starved of chances, but if Charlie Wyke who previously massively struggled to score consistently has managed to this season, it leaves very few excuses for the others’ failure.
Bar a stunning a strike against Aston Villa Under-23s, the 27-year-old has shown nothing to suggest he deserves a starting place. Perhaps he has not settled after such a long spell in London, but I cannot help but feel disappointed by this signing overall.
Morgan Feeney: 1 app - 1 assist & 1 goal
The most prolific player in Sunderland’s history?
Morgan Feeney’s short six-month spell at Sunderland can only be described as incredibly unlucky. His signing was refreshing, a young prospect from a fantastic academy who could develop with the club, who did not count in the wage cup, sadly it was not to be.
On his debut he looked solid, his ability aerially saw him score and set up a goal, but a serious hamstring injury stripped him of any chance to fight for a first-team place.
Lee Johnson’s decision to release him was sensible given Sunderland’s change in shape, the club simply do not need six centre-backs any more, and he was the simplest to shift.
Best of luck with your next move Morgan!
Danny Graham: 16 apps - 1 assist & 1 goal
I am still baffled as to why Phil Parkinson thought signing a 35-year-old, with previous experience of failing at the club, who was on the decline was a great idea, but here we are discussing it.
You cannot fault Graham’s effort, and to be fair to him I have always said his movement is the best out of our current forward options, but the definitive point is he has not scored a league goal this season.
He has missed far too many promising chances and Sunderland simply cannot persist with forwards who do not score, should he depart the club this month he will leave having scored just twice in 58 appearances in all competitions.
This transfer should never have occurred and Sunderland are paying the price for short-term narrow-minded recruitment decisions.
Remi Matthews: 8 apps - 0 clean sheets
After witnessing the likes of Lee Camp, Jason Steele and Robbin Ruiter in recent seasons, you would have thought Sunderland would have learned their lesson with recruiting error-prone goalkeepers, think again.
Matthews’ career on Wearside got off to a shocking start when he made a Rob Green-esque mistake against Carlisle in pre-season, unfortunately it was not a one off mistake.
In fairness, Matthews did have a short spell without mistakes and after an impressive save against Fleetwood some questioned if he had now settled and put the errors behind him, sadly another horror mistake against Burton planted a firm nail into that suggestion.
Sunderland now have a substitute goalkeeper who breeds zero confidence to the fans, possibly even the players. Academy graduate Anthony Patterson was preferred to start against Oldham in the EFL Trophy, which could suggest how Lee Johnson sees the situation.
This transfer made sense since Matthews was Parkinson’s first-choice at Bolton, but I think many fans will be thankful he only signed a one-year-deal.
Callum McFadzean: 7 apps - 1 assist
Now for the first positive on the list - here we have a player who was signed as cover because he fit a specific role as an offensive wing-back and to his credit McFadzean is steady cover.
He is not someone who I can see seriously competing with Denver Hume, but as a cover signing on a free transfer, I don’t think we can complain. I do not think the club wanted serious competition for Hume, or else I believe they would have went for Jordan Obita who ended up signing for Oxford.
McFadzean has shown in games such as Mansfield at home, Fleetwood away and Lincoln away, that he is capable of making things happen offensively. I do not think he has a future moving forward in Johnson’s plans, but the priority will be for Hume to start regularly for the time being.
Judging him as a short-term cover signing, I think McFadzean is satisfactory.
Dion Sanderson: 7 apps - 2 clean sheets
Another player who is difficult to judge is on-loan Wolves defender Dion Sanderson, who Phil Parkinson had absolutely no plan to use. I think if it had not been for a management change, Wolves would have 100% recalled the 21-year-old.
Admittedly, Sanderson was at fault for goals against Rochdale and Mansfield, but he was never handed a serious chance compared to others who were persisted with despite their mistakes.
Already players like Jack Diamond and Sanderson have been awarded chances by Johnson, with the defender winning man of the match last week against Northampton, whilst playing out of position at left-back.
I have a feeling that by the end of the season Sunderland fans will rate Sanderson, and he would have played far more games, he possesses the athleticism and ability on the ball that many modern defenders thrive upon.
He is difficult to rate currently, but I am confident this loan will prove worthwhile.
Bailey Wright: 21 apps - 2 goals, 9 clean sheets
Only one of Sunderland’s eight summer signings has been a regular starter and that is Bailey Wright.
After his colossal performances last season, is was imperative that the Australian international was resigned. Following his injury last season the wheels fell off at the back for Sunderland, with many labelling his injury as a key reason we missed out on the playoffs.
Alongside strikers, a position Sunderland have massively struggled to recruit successfully in has been in central defence. Alim Ozturk, Glenn Loovens, Jack Baldwin and Jimmy Dunne were all failed choices, Wright is a complete class above, and he would still be playing Championship football if it was not for his injury issues.
He did endure a rocky patch towards the end of Parkinson’s tenure, but I think the fact Wright is never dropped when fit shows how integral he is to Sunderland’s defence. The 28-year-old was Johnson’s captain at Bristol City, so I believe he will remain a key part of Sunderland’s plans moving forward in our quest to achieve promotion.
Arbenit Xhemajli: 1 app
Last we have the enigma that is Arby Xhemajli, a pre-season cult hero who was stripped of a chance of competing for a first-team place after suffering a serious knee injury whilst away with Kosovo.
Signing the 22-year-old was very left-field compared to Sunderland’s other summer moves, you would not think the Swiss Super League was high on the club’s scouting agenda, but he was signed to replace Tom Flanagan as a natural left-footed centre-half.
The Kosovan was the only senior transfer Sunderland spent money on in the summer, with a six-figure compensation fee reported, so you would imagine the club have faith he is ready to play League One football, unsurprisingly he was not handed a chance by Parkinson.
The problem that could emerge is whether Xhemajli is comfortable playing in a two, as well as how he well he recovers from such a serious injury, time can only tell on this transfer.
Overall Recruitment Analysis
The damning fact from the previous transfer window is that only one of the eight signings has become a regular starter for the first-team, which completely defeats the objective of using the window to improve the team.
Did Sunderland sign upgrades on the likes of Jon McLaughlin, Duncan Watmore, Antoine Semenyo and Kyle Lafferty? It seems we maintained 90% of our starting eleven but decreased on the quality of players competing to break into the first-team.
When you consider how many of the above list will have a future at Sunderland, you are left with just two max who are likely to still be here come the start of the 2021/22 season, bearing any late turnaround in form by Aiden O’Brien.
In summary, both Kristjaan Speakman and Lee Johnson may have significant work to do to turn Sunderland into a recruitment savvy club, but this summer’s business surely displays that the club’s current recruitment standards are at an all-time low?