The news late last night - revealed by Sky Sports News - that Patrick Roberts’ loan move from Manchester City to Sunderland was nearing completion was immensely pleasing to hear for most Lads fans, and for a bunch of really valid reasons.
Crucially: one, he’s got proven quality at a level higher than the one we find ourselves at currently. Two, he’s better than the current occupant of the left-wing slot. And three, he’s a player that every other team in League One would love to be able to call upon.
Providing he completes his medical and we get the deal over the line, that’s a really astute signing for a team at this level, regardless of the fact he’s struggled for game time in the French top flight this season with Troyes, and the recruitment team deserves credit for managing to entice a player with his pedigree to the third tier - presumably with future aspirations in the league above, for both the player and the club, in mind.
That said, it’s probably our weaknesses in other key positions where we now really need to focus our attention and address properly - starting with signing a centre-half.
As much as I’d love Arbenit Xhemajli to come good, the fact he’s been held back since pre-season despite making a full recovery from injury and playing numerous times for our U23s speaks volumes - either they are seriously hesitant about going all-in on him, or he’s not rated highly enough to come into the first team and play in League One.
That leaves us in a serious situation, because what’s clear to me is that we cannot continue to persist with Tom Flanagan at centre-half if we are serious about promotion.
I really feel bad about having to write this down and point it out, because I think Flanagan has actually had his best season in a Sunderland shirt so far, but time after time he’s left exposed by teams with forwards that are just stronger and busier than he is, and whilst I wouldn’t pin it all on him, he’s cost us vital points this week - most frustratingly, with the missed clearance on Saturday that led to the Accrington equaliser.
I saw that we’d been linked in the press with Aden Flint, and he’d be absolutely perfect for us - he’s a serious threat in both boxes due to his height, aggression and heading ability - but I have my reservations over whether he’d drop to this division, particularly given he’s playing every week in the Championship for Cardiff City.
That said, if there’s even a sniff of a chance that we’d be able to bring him in then I’d suggest that they go ahead do it, because time is of the essence - whilst there are some situations where patience is required in the transfer market, I don’t see a glut of experienced, aerially-proficient, Championship-standard central defenders queuing up to sign for third division teams.
Flint would be a game-changing acquisition, and given our central defenders right now are anything but game-changing, we really need to avoid messing around.
Equally, I think it’s clear that having a robust and reliable central midfield partner for Dan Neil is important, and whilst I’m a fan of Corry Evans and Carl Winchester, neither of them have been able to nail down that spot thus far this season, for a variety of reasons.
When Evans is fit he’s perfect, but the reason that he even came to us in League One is that he wasn’t able to stay out of the treatment room at Blackburn. His latest issue was just unfortunate given it was a concussion, but I still have concerns over his ability to play three games a week without picking up knocks here and there, and that could leave us short.
Winchester is a fine player but to me, he isn’t the midfield anchor we lack currently - if anything, he should be in strict competition with Dan Neil for that berth playing alongside the fella holding down the centre of the park.
We’ve seen in recent weeks that physical, robust League One outfits just run over us, regardless of how technically gifted that trio of Embleton, Pritchard and Neil are, and that needs to be addressed as a priority.
We’ve dropped too many points in this last week to become complacent, and that requires us to go out and sign a player who is of the quality of a Neil, a Pritchard, a Stewart or a Roberts, but is also a specialist in the centre of the park with a reputation for aggression, composure and leadership.
It would help if they were well-built and over six foot tall too - for whatever reason, we seem to avoid signing those types, but it’s the lack of those types of players this season that has meant teams like Burton, Wycombe, Accrington, Lincoln and Portsmouth have run all over us, and we can’t just ignore it.
We’ve got a huge game on Saturday now against a team who have already taken three points on us this season, and the pressure is on Lee Johnson to get three points.
But, whilst that pressure is rightly placed on his shoulders after a run of three games without a win, the people with the money and the people whose job it is to bring players to the club have to give the man the necessary tools required to be able to pick a team capable of going toe-to-toe with League One sloggers - and realistically, you cannot expect that to happen when he’s naming a midfield and defence that are full of ball-players who blatantly struggle with the physical aspect of the game.
Over to you, Mr Dreyfus, Mr Speakman and Mr Harvey.
Let’s give ourselves the best possible chance of gaining promotion, because like Wigan have shown with the astute signings of Graeme Shinnie and Josh Magennis, they’re prepared to dip their toes in the market to bring in good players to bolster their ranks if it ensures they get out of the division. There’s no reason why we can’t either.