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Editorial: Lessons learned? Sunderland can’t get into the state we were in with injuries again

There’s a mammoth task underway to rebuild Sunderland’s squad this summer - and we cannot let ourselves get into the same sh*t-state we were in this past season with defensive injuries again.

Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images

The key thing that underlines pretty much the entire season for Sunderland, for me, is the horrendous state we ended up in with injuries from pretty much the beginning of the campaign.

Good money was spent on acquiring Arbenit Xhemajli, but he was sidelined for the rest of the season after a small handful of promising early season performances. Morgan Feeney, another summer acquisition, also ended up spending a large amount of time sidelined before he was eventually allowed to leave.

Jordan Willis was clearly unfit when he did play, but eventually, he succumbed to a season-ending injury - and, since then, his situation has escalated, and we’re told he’s likely to miss the entirety of next season too.

Questions have to be asked about whether he’ll ever be able to play professional football again, given the nature of his issues and the unbelievable road he’d have to go down in order to recover - and even then, he may not be able to play to a high level again.

Conor McLaughlin was plagued by various issues that saw him constantly in and out of the side, despite playing fairly well, and Tom Flanagan was another who just couldn’t seem to keep himself fit for more than a couple of games.

Sunderland v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One Photo by Chris Vaughan - CameraSport via Getty Images

Bailey Wright managed to get through the end of the season, but he also spent a large chunk of time sidelined, and it was the suspicion of many fans and pundits that Wright was probably playing through some lingering issues in order to help the team out.

This all allowed Dion Sanderson the chance to shine, and he did, but he also picked up an injury that ended his season prematurely.

Denver Hume, our first choice left back, has struggled all season with hamstring problems. This meant we were forced to play our worst player at left back because almost every other option was missing.

Oh... and I nearly forgot the fact Jake Vokins had a heart problem which basically ended his season early too.

Now... and I’m not exaggerating here... but has this club ever had worse luck with defensive injuries than we had during the 2021-22 season?!

It forced us into playing Luke O’Nien at centre half, and Max Power at right back.

For a while it worked... but things soon unravelled, and our horrendous defensive performances basically cost us automatic promotion.

Sunderland v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One Play-off Semi Final 2nd Leg Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

I don’t think it really matters who your manager is when you’ve got a list of issues that long - eventually, you will come unstuck.

The one big question mark over Lee Johnson’s handling of it is why he didn’t think it was a risk worth taking to give Oliver Younger a proper chance in his proper position, but otherwise, he had very little choice in who he picked, and in what system.

We have to use this as a tool for learning, though.

We have the opportunity this summer to basically rebuild our team, and with that privilege, we have the choice of signing pretty much whoever we want - within reason, of course. We’re not likely to see Lionel Messi at the Stadium of Light next season... not unless Man City sign him and we draw them in the cup.

There will be many characteristics that the manager and Sporting Director, Kristjaan Speakman, will be looking out for, but right at the top of that list needs to be the durability of a player.

Obviously, you cannot really predict a situation like the one we found ourselves in last season. I’m sure we have a top medical department that gives our players the best possible care, and their handling of injured players really cannot be questioned.

What we can do though is sign players who don’t have a history of niggling injuries. We can target younger players who have succeeded in playing a large amount of games in a short space of time, showing that they’re capable of playing in a long, gruelling season.

Stoke City U23 v Sunderland U23: Premier League 2 Play-Off Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Having to prepare your body for three games in the space of seven days is no mean feat, and the schedule this season has been absolutely exhausting. Not only did the season start later than usual, but we were delayed by a COVID outbreak that saw games cancelled and rescheduled - and we had a long winning run in the EFL Trophy, which added extra games into an already packed fixture list.

The fact is that if you are having a good season, and you do well in cup competitions, you are going to play a lot of football. You need to therefore build a young squad that can cope with having so much thrown their way.

That sounds a lot more straightforward than it probably is, but it means you have to think twice about signing a certain type of player.

I’ve seen enough football at this level now to know that the teams that do well, come the end of the season, tend to have a lot of young players through the core of their squad.

Just look at Blackpool - that side isn’t littered with stars, but they do have a young, athletic, quick core of dependable players. Sunderland haven’t been able to say that about their squad for almost as long as I can remember.

Blackpool v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One - Playoff - Final - Wembley Stadium Photo by Zac Goodwin/PA Images via Getty Images

Speakman, Johnson and co can very quickly right some of the wrongs of previous regimes this summer by being bold with their big decisions on player recruitment and the retention of current squad members.

I won’t go into great detail on it (chiefly because I already wrote a fairly lengthy piece on how I feel our best U23s players should figure into our plans for the senior side going forward here), but fobbing off signing experienced, older League One standard players in favour of promoting your best youngsters has to form a big part of their thinking.

Oliver Younger aside, though, we don’t have a great deal of senior-standard talent coming up through the ranks in defensive positions.

That means that when we come to recruit this summer, we absolutely need to ensure we sign young, energetic players who are capable of playing the ridiculous amount of football that the League One schedule demands of them.

If we don’t, and if we follow the same path that Sunderland have done for years and years now, it’ll feel like an opportunity missed.

We have an epic opportunity to totally overhaul just about everything this summer, and as part of that we can be bold, and different.

Why not?


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