Irrespective of what happens during the remaining three (and hopefully six) games of the season, the prospect of another summer rebuild is looming large at the Stadium of Light.
Whether we are Championship-bound or gearing up for another League One promotion bid, there will doubtless be a significant number of departures as loan spells end and contracts expire.
Among the players who fall into this category are two young prospects that seemed to epitomise the new direction that was taken during last summer’s transfer activity, Thorben Hoffmann and Leon Dajaku.
The German loanees have endured something of a stop-start first season in English football, and it seems certain that we will be bidding farewell to both of them when the campaign reaches its end.
Personally, I do feel that they both have a good deal more to offer, and would like to believe that there is a chance that they will stay, but it feels as though a parting of the ways is inevitable, and that they will continue their development elsewhere, possibly at clubs in mainland Europe.
With both players seemingly unlikely to play any significant role during the remaining weeks of the season, how can we sum up their contributions to the club’s efforts during 2021/2022, and the impact they’ve made in the red and white stripes?
In Hoffmann’s case, he started the season reasonably strongly, experienced some not-unexpected dips in form, showed flashes of promise, but ultimately lost his way and has not recovered since.
He began the season as first choice, and turned in a number of impressive performances during the autumn and early winter, before his, and the team’s form, took an alarming dip as 2022 arrived.
At the moment, the abiding image of Hoffmann’s time at Sunderland remains his performance in Lee Johnson’s final game in charge, the shambolic 6-0 drubbing at the hands of Bolton.
That day, his performance was that of a player whose confidence was fragile, to put it mildly, and the kamikaze manner in which he dashed out of his area for Bolton’s first goal was a stark metaphor for the way in which we collapsed.
Despite the fact that Hoffmann has never really won over the entirety of the Sunderland fanbase, he is certainly a talented goalkeeper.
The fundamentals of his game - shot-stopping, distribution, athleticism and reflexes - are strong, but there is no doubt that his positioning and concentration can be suspect, as well as the fact that he never really seemed to develop a strong and reliable connection with his defenders.
In contrast, Anthony Patterson has done just that, and the team has reaped the rewards as a result, with a welcome run of clean sheets and much-improved defensive performances. He has seldom put a foot wrong since Alex Neil’s arrival, and is well positioned to be our undisputed number one for the foreseeable future.
So, why has Hoffmann found League One such a struggle? Is it simply a case of him being too close to the cosmopolitan, European model of goalkeeper, when a more rugged, no-nonsense presence is required for the rigours of this division?
At this level, the notion of playing out from the back, which was clearly the aim under Johnson, can be hazardous, and there were plenty of heart-in-mouth moments as Hoffmann often found himself attempting to start attacking moves from inside his own box. When it works, it can be effective, but any slip or misplaced pass can be disastrous.
The one thing that you can with certainty is that Hoffmann certainly showed plenty of passion and heart during his time here. For a young man playing in an unfamiliar environment, I always felt that he acquitted himself well, and with a good level of professionalism.
As for Dajaku, once you filtered out the usual cries of ‘he’s one of the worst players ever’ and ‘he’s not even Northern League standard’, that regularly followed his performances early in the season (which were often erratic, admittedly) you are left with a talented, livewire of an attacker who simply seems to have lost his way as the season unfolded.
There have been some undoubted highlights, not least his eye-of-the-needle pass for Ross Stewart’s goal against Sheffield Wednesday, and well-taken goals against Oxford and Crewe, that demonstrated his fleetness of foot, as well as a keen eye for goal.
Although he struggled on the occasions he found himself playing as a wing-back, I always felt he could be a useful attacking threat for us if utilised properly.
Unfortunately, the January arrivals of Patrick Roberts and Jack Clarke, as well as Elliot Embleton’s ongoing contributions, have resulted in Dajaku sliding away from the first-team picture, and at the time of writing, he was recovering from a bout of tonsillitis that saw him return to Germany for treatment.
In many ways, the arrivals of Hoffmann and Dajaku hinted at what the future might hold for the club, whereby we scour the continent for young, up-and-coming prospects, bring them to Wearside, and allow them to develop and hopefully flourish.
It hasn’t quite happened for the two young Germans, and it will be interesting to see what their next moves are, and where they might end up playing during 2022/2023. If their experience at Sunderland has made them more resilient, it won’t have been an entirely wasted season.