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Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Final

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Engine room options: How is Sunderland’s midfield looking ahead of 2022/2023?

“With just under a month until the season kicks off, Sunderland do have some depth in the middle, but reinforcements are still needed,” writes Phil West.

Photo by Federico Maranesi/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

If the new recruitment model that was first implemented last summer can be fine-tuned during this transfer window, it feels like a good bet that Sunderland will have a squad that is capable of competing strongly when we kick off against Coventry on the 31st of July.

Last Thursday’s signing of Daniel Ballard- a player who certainly fits the mould of the young, up-and-comer with plenty of room for improvement, was undoubtedly a step forward as we seek to bolster our squad ahead of the new season.

Seemingly blessed with impressive leadership credentials as a former Arsenal youth team skipper, as well as physicality and quality on the ball, the Northern Ireland international ticks a multitude of boxes, and it will be interesting to see how quickly and effectively he slots in.

Defensively, we are slowly edging towards a position of real strength, albeit with another left-back and another central defender on many people’s list of targets, and it would be no surprise to see reinforcements arrive in the coming weeks. It may also be tempting to view Trai Hume and Niall Huggins as ‘being like new signings’, but patience will be key as they continue their comebacks.

Sunderland v Cheltenham Town - Sky Bet League One Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

So, with the defence starting to take shape, what of Sunderland’s current midfield options?

At this moment in time, we are certainly not threadbare in the middle of the park, with Corry Evans, Jay Matete, Carl Winchester, Luke O’Nien, and Dan Neil all vying for starting places, but that is not to say that additional quality is not required, which it most certainly is.

If we are to assume that Evans, as club captain and an inspirational figure during the latter part of last season, will retain his place in the starting eleven, the question of who partners him is an interesting one. O’Nien’s versatility and willingness to slot in where needed are both well-known, but will Alex Neil seek to utilise him in a different role this season?

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Final Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

Matete, meanwhile, remains something of an unknown quantity, which may sound strange given that he has been at the club since January, but in that time, he has seldom been given an extended run in the team, and has largely had to try and impress via brief cameos from the bench, during which he often looked decent but also quite rash and prone to errors.

Much speculation has also surrounded Dan Neil’s future, on the often-discussed basis that Alex Neil ‘doesn’t fancy him’, as illustrated by the fact that he barely featured during Sunderland’s end-of-season run and successful playoff campaign.

To say the least, this was in sharp contrast to his early-season form, during which time he had seemingly taken to first-team football with ease, could do little wrong, and was earning rave reviews on a weekly basis.

Sunderland v Accrington Stanley - Sky Bet League One Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Whilst it was disappointing to see Neil play a minimal role in our promotion (something of which I was often critical, and wrongly so, given the eventual outcome) it was true that he often looked jaded during the winter and early spring, as Lee Johnson became increasingly reliant on him.

To that end, perhaps his current boss simply decided to withdraw him from the firing line in order to ensure that his development was not compromised.

Despite the somewhat pessimistic outlook regarding his current status, I remain convinced that not only does Neil have a future at the club, but that he will play a key role in the Championship campaign and continue to demonstrate why he is such a highly-rated young footballer.

In a league where games are often more expansive and time on the ball more plentiful, his attributes could be utilised to full effect, and I really do believe that the boss will simply manage him more smartly and ensure that is not burned out as a result of being overplayed.

In terms of midfield additions, the rumour mill has consistently linked us with AFC Wimbledon’s Jack Rudoni, a powerful, box-to-box presence who chipped in with a handy amount of goals and assists last season, and for whom Wimbledon are expected to hold out for a record transfer fee.

AFC Wimbledon v Cambridge United - Sky Bet League One - The Cherry Red Records Stadium Photo by Jacques Feeney/PA Images via Getty Images

Assuming we could persuade him to swap Plough Lane for the Stadium of Light, Rudoni would certainly give us some much-needed physicality in the middle, as well as a goalscoring threat, too.

During his time here, Alex Neil has regularly demonstrated his willingness to rotate the starting eleven, depending on challenge the posed by the opposition. If Kristjaan Speakman and the recruitment team can continue with their policy of conducting transfer business on a quietly efficient basis, and target players to fit the current structure, the red and white engine room ought to be able to provide a solid platform for our attackers in the Championship.

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