For years, Sunderland often struggled in the middle of the pitch.
It’s an area that’s previously been weak, fragile and often showed no sign of improvement, but we’re now in a position where we could potentially play any two or even three of our current crop and be confident they’d win the battle.
In Pierre Ekwah, we’ve finally unearthed the kind of dynamic, athletic, box-to-box midfielder the fans have been crying out for for years.
Signed on a free transfer from West Ham in January, the Frenchman showed an incredible rate of improvement during the final few months of last season.
His infectious personality has made him a fan favourite on Wearside and he’ll be a massive player for us in what’ll be a competitive Championship season. He’s not the finished article yet but when he really gets going, he’ll be hard to stop.
Dan Neil, meanwhile, has his critics but is still a very talented player.
His defensive abilities have improved greatly over the last twelve months and he’s developing into a very well-rounded midfielder. He averaged 2.2 key tackles per game during the 2022/2023 season, as well as chipping in with two goals and four assists, a tally he’ll surely want to improve on this season.
Statistics are often overused nowadays in ‘analysis’ but they also help to put things into perspective – namely that Neil is an important player.
Another player of particular interest is Jay Matete.
He’s back at Sunderland after spending the second half of last season on loan at Plymouth Argyle, who were eventually crowned champions of League One.
A combative midfielder, Matete likes to get stuck in and his yellow card rate last season proved it. He averaged a caution every 122 minutes during his loan spell, which would equate to thirty three in forty six games.
Tony Mowbray seems to have Matete in his plans for the new season and there have been no links to other clubs, although that doesn’t mean a lot nowadays, considering how we go about our business.
Since his arrival last summer, we’ve not seen a great deal of Abdoullah Ba.
He was mainly restricted to substitute appearances last season and he generally did well in the time he was given.
The Frenchman is silky on the ball and is always looking to create opportunities for the team.
His goal against Norwich and assist against Sheffield United were a sign of what’s to come, although he must learn to master his duties off the ball and this will come with more understanding of the language, as well as game time.
Jobe Bellingham, meanwhile, is only seventeen, albeit with some great attributes, and he’ll only get better.
Bellingham has a big battle with the national media to show them that he’s not just ‘Jude Bellingham’s little brother’ and that he is where he is on merit. With more than twenty Championship appearances already, our number seven has a bright future ahead of him.
And finally, the wonder kid, Chris Rigg.
In this pre-season so far, he’s shown that he has the ability to go right to the very top of the game, not looking out of place and chipping in with a couple of goals as well.
He really is proof of the change at the club and the trust that’s being placed in younger players. After losing youngsters such as Joe Hugill, Sam Greenwood and Bali Mumba under our previous ownership, we’re back on track at youth level and showing that we have one of the best academy systems in the country.
Elsewhere, Corry Evans was a vital part of our midfield before his injury and he’s set to return during the first few months of the season, as is Elliot Embleton, who’ll compete with Alex Pritchard for an attacking role.
Both of them will play their part this season, and Pritchard looked sharp against New Mexico United as he linked up well with Hemir.
It’s a young and exciting group of midfielders who’ll learn a lot over the coming weeks, months and years. With expert coaching and wisdom from the squad’s older heads, Sunderland’s midfield will only get better, and it’ll be another exciting season.
Roll on August!