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The big questions facing Sunderland ahead as 2024 approaches

Following our sixth place finish of 2022/2023, the current campaign has seen some highs and lows, so what are the major issues to tackle for the remainder of the campaign?

Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Will returning defensive reinforcements mean changes at the back?

As Michael Beale continues to learn about his squad and to assess their capabilities, he’ll hopefully be able to choose from a deeper pool of defensive resources as injuries ease and players gradually work their way back into contention.

Niall Huggins’ severe-looking injury suffered against Coventry on Saturday was another cruel setback, and hopefully his recovery will be as swift as possible. In the meantime, the likes of Aji Alese and Dennis Cirkin are taking positive steps along the comeback trail, and the highly-rated Timothée Pembélé will surely be in contention soon.

The question of our full backs not being marauding enough and providing options for our wingers, particularly with Trai Hume’s habit of stepping into midfield, is one that’s been discussed for a while, but hopefully former PSG alumni Pembélé can provide us with some much-needed attacking impetus when he breaks into the team.

In the centre of defence, meanwhile, will Beale eventually give the promising Jenson Seelt further chances to impress after some encouraging contributions earlier in the campaign?

The Dutchman could seemingly be the perfect foil for Dan Ballard and although Luke O’Nien has retained possession of both the shirt and the captain’s armband through some rough spells of form, there would surely be no harm in switching him for the summer arrival from PSV Eindhoven.

The games are coming thick and fast and in my opinion, this is all about showing faith.

There’s no indication that Seelt wouldn’t be able to handle the responsibility of starting games and he’s likely to be first choice if and when Ballard eventually leaves, so it would be great to see him playing a bigger role in the near future.

Sunderland v Leeds United - Sky Bet Championship - Stadium of Light Photo by Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images

How to keep the red and white engine room firing?

Dan Neil is essentially an automatic starter nowadays and has carried the mantle of ‘senior partner’ in Sunderland’s midfield with superb confidence and maturity in Corry Evans’ absence.

He was a favourite of Tony Mowbray’s and if he continues to improve at his current rate, he’ll become a dependable and highly influential presence in Beale’s starting eleven as well.

However, the ongoing malaise being suffered by Pierre Ekwah is simply too glaring a concern to overlook and it feels uncomfortably as though the club downplayed the severity of his ‘dead leg’, because his performances since returning have rarely been that of the Ekwah we all know he can be.

Whether it’s being driven by a lack of confidence, ongoing fitness concerns, unhappiness or speculation surrounding his future, January’s arrival from West Ham needs to work his way through this poor spell, because a fully fit and firing Ekwah is a real asset for us.

His role in Coventry’s second goal on Saturday - casually standing by and allowing Callum O’Hare to get a shot away - was that of a player who wasn’t fully plugged in, and he’s simply not influencing games as much as we need him to.

Surely the club will dip into the market and look to secure the services of a game-breaking defensive midfielder who can dig in, complete the hard yards and ensure that we don’t lose too many physical battles.

It was a role that Evans performed so effectively and although there are calls for Jay Matete to be phased back into the team, it feels like a good bet that it’ll be an area in which we do some business during the transfer window.

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

Sunderland’s ‘perfect tens’?

The ongoing lack of goals from our strikers (more on that later) has gone from being a concern to a running joke to a head scratcher that nobody seems to be able to figure out, but one thing is for sure: we have enough depth and quality in attacking midfield to ensure the issue of service really shouldn’t go unaddressed.

To say the least, our options in this area are plentiful.

Alex Pritchard remains a key player for us, Adil Aouchiche has shown his quality in flashes; Chris Rigg is an exciting prospect and Jobe will slot in wherever is necessary to help the team. Combine that with the talent of Jack Clarke and Patrick Roberts, and there ought to be no excuses for any bluntness in attack.

Will Beale ultimately be able to settle on a first-choice #10 and remould our attacking game around whoever that player happens to be?

Abdoullah Ba’s confidence will have taken a hit following the shambles of Saturday, and he and Roberts are looking increasingly incompatible within the same team, which is resulting in a lack of balance and attacks breaking down before we can capitalise.

All things considered, perhaps a ‘simple is best’ approach is needed. We’ve often been guilty of being too intricate with our attacking play, and maybe Beale will look to strip it back and sacrifice artistic merit for greater effectiveness.

Millwall v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Dylan Hepworth/MB Media/Getty Images

A striking solution?

The fact that Sunderland spent almost the entire summer working on a deal for Nazariy Rusyn should’ve been proof of our desire to make him a key player in our team.

However, bar a handful of appearances during which he actually looked quite promising, the Ukrainian forward has often been overlooked in favour of an experiment with makeshift centre forwards that’s hardly worked like a charm.

Amid the demands to sign a new striker or two that’ll doubtless last for the entire month of January and with Hemir essentially out of commission and Mason Burstow in a state of limbo, Sunderland must surely choose between Rusyn or Eliezer Mayenda as their go-to frontman for the foreseeable future.

Rusyn, as we saw against Birmingham City in particular, is combative, pacy, and unafraid to shoot whenever he gets a chance. Unlike his fellow strikers, he’s got a decent amount of experience in first team football and would doubtless relish the opportunity to show exactly why he had such a burgeoning reputation in his homeland.

By the end of January, the hope is that we’ll have secured the services of this mystical ‘experienced and proven Championship goal scorer’ (something about which I have major doubts) but in the meantime, it’s surely time to make greater use of the players at our disposal and show the level of faith that persuaded us to sign them in the first place.

Sunderland v Norwich City - Sky Bet Championship - Stadium of Light Photo by Will Matthews/PA Images via Getty Images

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