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Sunderland’s midfield is not quite clicking, but January is a great chance to address it

With plenty of skill and less in the way of physicality, our midfield is not yet at the level required to compete with the very best in the league, writes Phil West

Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Perhaps the most encouraging observation ahead of the January transfer window is that Sunderland’s squad doesn’t require major surgery or a radical overhaul in order to remain competitive until the end of the season.

With a fully-fit defence, we ought to be able to limit the number of openings afforded to opposing teams and with our wealth of attacking talent, goals shouldn’t be hard to come by- particularly if Ross Stewart remains on Wearside come the end of next month.

However, our midfield is a different story, and although we aren’t short of options, it’s certainly an area that could be enhanced with some smart recruitment when the window opens.

During certain matches this season, most notably against Cardiff, we’ve been left far too open in that area of the pitch.

Sunderland v Cardiff City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

This has led to periods in games during which we’ve struggled to maintain control and the opposition have often driven straight through us. Indeed, you got the sense that the Bluebirds could hardly believe their luck as gaps appeared and they breezed past our midfield men like they simply weren’t there.

Player by player, the story so far is one of some successes and some frustrating performances.

Corry Evans, our skipper and on-field general, has been reliable and solid, but the likes of Dan Neil have often struggled to reach the heights that we hoped they would.

Evans is a fine player and his turnaround in form over the past year has been wonderful to see, but there’s never any harm in looking for a long-term replacement, particularly as the Northern Ireland international is now thirty two and will doubtless need to be managed carefully over the coming seasons.

Birmingham City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images

Neil has been in an underwhelming run of form for some time, but his talent is undeniable, and perhaps he’s simply trying too hard and has sometimes been guilty of forcing things, rather than taking a more natural approach and playing in a way that allows his ability to shine.

Elsewhere, Abdoullah Ba, Edouard Michut and Jay Matete have simply not featured regularly enough in order to make a lasting impact, and Elliot Embleton’s season looks to be all but over following the injury he suffered against Hull.

Matete was supposedly signed from Fleetwood as a box-to-box prospect, but he’s only featured sporadically during his first year on Wearside, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him loaned out if the incomings are of requisite quality.

Among those named above, Ba is the wildcard option, and I'm keen to see Tony Mowbray give the former Le Havre youngster more chances to impress.

Yes, the decision to start him against Cardiff ultimately backfired, but few of our players really shone that day, and in reality, it felt more like a false start than a real setback for Ba.

Blackburn Rovers v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship - Ewood Park Photo by Isaac Parkin/PA Images via Getty Images

In order for our more skilful players to thrive, the platform needs to be laid with a game-breaking presence in the middle.

During the League One years, we tried a multitude of different combinations, and although Luke O’Nien frequently caught the eye with some tigerish displays, particularly last season, it remains a weakness that hasn’t fully been covered off.

If Neil, for example, had a no-nonsense number eight alongside him, a player who could keep things ticking over, put in a crunching challenge now and then and generally do the hard yards, the impact on his game could be noticeable. The same is true of Alex Pritchard, whose influence could increase with a solid platform underneath him.

Sunderland v Millwall - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In essence, we need to try and find the advanced version of Danny Batth, and although that might be a simply analogy, the ex-Stoke defender’s attitude and willingness to graft for every second of a game are priceless qualities in the dog-eat-dog world of a Championship midfield battle.

The one thing I’m extremely confident about is that Mowbray, Kristjaan Speakman and Stuart Harvey will have identified targets and will doubtless be working as hard as possible to secure them.

The team is in an ongoing state of evolution, and piece by piece, we need to continue to bring the entire squad up to a level that can match the best that the Championship can offer. We aren’t a million miles away, and January is a great opportunity to inject even more quality into a crucial area of the squad.


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