How do we feel about our transfer business right now?
As is always the case at this time of the year, there have been many concerns aired about the status of our transfers in recent weeks.
Some views have been balanced and constructive, and others have been the opposite. It’s typical fare for those that follow our club, and many other clubs around the country.
With less than a week to go, I found myself thinking about how I feel as we enter the final stages of the window.
The word I would use to describe this week is quite simple: ‘crucial’. We started our business promisingly, but there’s still a lot to do.
Are we ahead of the curve or behind it? Can we trust the recruitment team to do the job?
The start of the window was very encouraging, with Jenson Seelt, Jobe Bellingham, Hemir, Eliezer Mayenda, Nathan Bishop and Nectar Triantis all arriving early, and our total investment estimated to be in the region of £5 million.
Even though those moves were celebrated widely at the time, we have a lot of ground to cover by Friday night, and our business this week is vital to our chances of a playoff berth or better.
Looking at the business we’ve done under the current recruitment team, I’m confident that we’ll get most of what we need, although it’s likely we won’t get absolutely everything we’re pursuing, which is simply a fact of life.
This season, there are many big and well-established clubs in the Championship.
Players may not prefer a move to the North East, or they may get better offers from other teams. Although Sunderland is a huge football club with great facilities and a passionate fan base, it isn’t London, Birmingham or Manchester.
Lots of factors are at play, and only some of them can be influenced by the recruitment team.
One of my main issues is that it’s now very hard to judge how Kristjaan Speakman and his team are doing from a fan’s perspective.
Nowadays, the club is well-versed in keeping its transfer business private, which is another huge step in the right direction. Players like Pierre Ekwah arrived as unknowns to most of us in January and he’s thrived ever since.
How many more Ekwah-type signings do we have under consideration? Should the current number of signings be a major worry when the club has regularly demonstrated they’re on the ball with what we need, and could prove it again with names that most of us aren’t aware of?
Back in the day, such business was regularly being touted around the press as negotiations moved on.
These overly open discussions often led to players occasionally being snapped up by other clubs who were made aware of those looking for a move. Deals still break down these days, but we’re being run much more efficiently.
If we do get most of what we need, I’m readying myself for another very enjoyable spectacle, and if we succeed in doing further business this week, I feel we can make positive steps forward this season.
Are our expectations for this season overly high due to 2022/2023?
It may be the case that fan expectations are a little too high after last season, but I’m not really sure. It doesn’t matter to many fans that 2022/2023 was over and above what many would’ve expected, because progress is wanted and in some cases demanded.
I remain very grateful that our first season back in the Championship was such a great ride, with fantastic football and some wonderful goals, but a playoff run was far from my expectations this time last season.
However, the fans want to see progression, and another playoff tilt is the least they’ll accept come next May.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I’m not so well aligned to that level of expectation. After all, this is a long-term project and not an overnight gig.
We may well end up finishing in mid-table during 2023/2024.
That’ll still be a good performance, and in my view we need to make sure that we don’t forget that, as well as where we were only two seasons ago.
Going back to transfers, let’s be frank: no head coach gets everything they ask for in the summer window, and I certainly don’t want us to overstretch our finances as the present recruitment model is the right one, in my view.
I also don’t want to end up with a demotivated wider squad if we’re overstocked in certain areas by early September.
Tony Mowbray doesn’t need more man management challenges and our squad seems to be unified right now.
I’d prefer us to try to maintain that team spirit, but competition for places and cover is certainly required, too.
What do we need this week, and who may go the other way?
In my opinion, we need at least one more striker, and a deal to sign Ukrainian attacker Nazariy Rusyn is allegedly very close.
If we can bring in two forwards, that would be perfect, as Mayenda is recovering fast and will want a chance very soon.
It’s been too long since we had genuine cover up front, and at times I shudder to think what we could’ve achieved if we’d been better staffed in that area last season.
Previous failures, such as not replacing Ellis Simms last December, need to be corrected, because errors made by the recruitment team have often left gaps that many fans (myself included) won’t forgive were it to happen again.
We need another midfielder too (ideally in the Corry Evans mould) and maybe one more winger, as the absence of Patrick Roberts against Coventry showed how much we need him or someone like him.
Abdoullah Ba was brought in for that game and although he’s a decent player, he’s got a lot of development to do and may not reach the same level as Roberts or Amad.
On the diminutive Ivorian, I was thinking over the weekend that I haven’t heard about anyone snapping up Amad after his 2022/2023 campaign.
Having done a bit of digging, I’ve just read that the lack of news is primarily due to him missing most of the summer after an injury he picked up during a pre-season game against Arsenal.
Stretching the art of the possible this window, if we could bring Amad back and someone like Rusyn alongside Ross Stewart, that would be fantastic.
I’d love Amad to sign for us permanently, but it’s clear that he’s far above our price range right now. Nevertheless, another season-long loan would be incredible.
Maybe one day, his love for Sunderland will be the trigger that brings him back to Wearside, and after all, he’s already said that if he goes out on loan again, we are where he wants to be.
I really hope that happens and until he signs for someone else, it remains a possibility.
Loan deals or permanent signings: are we bothered?
Going back to this week’s business, I’m not really bothered if some of the potential arrivals are loans, like Amad was.
It wouldn’t surprise me if some fall into that category, given that those sorts of deals generally happen in the final week.
The whole transfer picture at the top level generally makes people available this week more than most. This could be an area we exploit and I really hope we do.
One of the other questions being asked is whether certain players need to leave in order for others to arrive, but I’m not so sure.
If we don’t bring in players for the roles above, I wouldn’t expect the incumbents to depart this week.
‘In before out’ has to be our approach if we want to continue to progress, and we can’t afford to let the squad become thinner than it is right now and expect to repeat last season’s efforts.
The chat about Alex Pritchard, Lynden Gooch and Danny Batth leaving can only be feasible if we get better options in first.
They can all do a job at this level and they bring vital experience. We could sign several players based on data before letting someone like Batth go, only to discover that we’ve dropped in terms of overall quality.
It’s a fine balance and a byproduct of data-driven recruitment, which we as fans understand less than we think, in my view.
Data makes it less of a lottery, but there are still risks that the numbers can’t cover off.
As an example, Luke O’Nien is a great asset and his new deal and elevation to captain were both fully merited, but for me, he isn’t the answer to Batth potentially leaving.
Clearly Seelt and Triantis are part of our future plans, but can we lose Batth right now and not take a hit at the back?
In my opinion, the jury is also out on why Pritchard isn’t starting ahead of Bradley Dack, as his influence off the bench in recent weeks hasn’t been enough for him to be in the starting eleven.
Lynden Gooch bleeds red and white but he seems to be struggling to secure a starting berth, partly due to a recent injury.
Of the three, perhaps Gooch is most likely to go, which would be a shame because on his day, he’s an asset and an incredibly hard grafter.
It could be argued that we need to retain players like him, as that’s a quality that many of our more technical footballers simply don’t offer.
The blend of skills and attributes needs to be retained, as a team full of super technical players won’t succeed in the Championship.
Is this a critical week for Speakman and his team?
In summary, yes.
In my opinion, this week is immensely important as to how we may fare this season, and that’s speaking as a Sunderland fan of over forty years.
I’d be very disappointed if we let some of our experienced players go without better options coming in first, but I do hope to see two or three more arrive with one or two departing in order to balance things.
However, based on the last few seasons with Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and Speakman at the helm, one thing is clear to me: there may well be a few unknowns in the mix, but the chances are they could turn out to be the next big thing, both at this level and above.
Whatever happens this week, the rise of signings like Jobe Bellingham is going to be something to behold, as is the development of Ekwah and youth products like Dan Neil and Chris Rigg.
Our focus on good football and growing an exciting team from young roots is absolutely where I want us to be. To an extent, we may have to accept that it’ll take more time, but periods like this week are where we need to build and improve what we have.
I have my fingers crossed for a very successful week, because with some quality additions and players returning from injury, who knows what we can achieve under Mowbray’s leadership this season?