For Sunderland AFC, the summer transfer window felt like the moment its fabled model would either evolve to the next step of successful reinvestment and reinvention or it would not. In the event of the latter, the inquest would have been prompt and severe. If it were the former, then exaggerated plaudits would surely ring aloud. A halfway house did not seem possible.
Yet, in the end, here we are. Flag pitched firmly in that middle ground of uncertainty.
Everyone will have an opinion on our latest signings, of course. But, if you hear people proclaim Kristjaan Speakman was *checks notes* – ‘cooking’ or conversely if the window is condemned as ‘poor,’ this is simply guesswork.
How truly informed could those views be when, if honesty were to prevail, they are limited to YouTube highlights and Google searches. True, some of that guess work may be more educated. But, nevertheless its important not to be too rash in your assessment one way or the other.
In truth, it is simply is not possible to say with any degree of certainty how good or bad the club’s transfer business has been, without the passage of time.
One of the main reasons is due to the profile of players brought in. Once again they are young, little-known prospects ready to be – as Mowbray would say – ‘polished up’.
It is what we have come to expect, and unsurprisingly, the model was not deviated from this time around.
There has been some success with it, after all. Hopefully, as we have witnessed with those already within the group, some will hit the ground running.
Given the age of most of the newcomers, time is very much on their side. Ultimately, in respect of Sunderland’s Premier League aspirations, it may be time that some supporters will not be happy to grant. We shall see.
EXPERIENCE V INEXPERIENCE
The loss of those more experienced outgoings will perhaps not be immediately felt either but when it is, it’s likely to be in ways that are not so readily obvious to supporters.
Indeed, while we are on the subject of experience – nothing about Sunderland’s summer business will allay any fears around the lack of it. For those with concerns they now appear baked in until proven otherwise.
To that end the team will still presumably go through the same highs and lows throughout the season as we’ve come to expect from having such a young and inevitably inconsistent squad. Thoughts of what might have been had a few more experienced players been parachuted in are going nowhere.
Of concern now is the fact that if the few experienced heads we had got us through those worrying moments last season and the season before, given they can no longer be heard as loudly, we can only hope that the even younger voices now prevail. Yet, this group has shown it fights until the end and age here is arguably not a determining factor.
Which ever way you spin it, accurate assessment in the aftermath of a transfer window is simply not possible. However, we will continue to do what we can based on what we know.
With rumours and counter rumours, in the end it was 12 incomings and 10 out. It’s fair to say that once 11pm rolled around on 1st September 2023 many fans had been on a rollercoaster of deadline day emotions.
And the biggest talking point? Ross Stewart. Sunderland AFC’s talismanic striker left for pastures new. Some supporters were bereft. Given the length of his absence through injury, others barely registered the loss.
Either way, in the absence of his signature on a new contract it all seemed somewhat inevitable. Yet, there is an argument for saying that had he been allowed to stay his goals this season could have been worth far more to the club than any £10m deal.
The club’s decision was to take the (potentially) smaller but immediate profit rather than risk recouping nothing later. There are pros and cons here and many factors in play.
Equally, there was a risk that Stewart would not return to be the force he was. This too needed to be weighed up alongside Southampton’s offer, emerging somewhat late in the day, which could have easily left the Black Cats holding a sizeable cheque, but multiple holes still left in their squad as there was little time to spend it.
Thankfully, players did arrive on deadline day and holes were filled, although not all. In fact, you might say the sale of Stewart (for the largest fee commanded by the Black Cats since Jordan Henderson left for Liverpool) likely paid for the majority, if not all, of the club’s summer business.
The Scot may have been the scorer of some of Sunderland AFC’s classic goals in recent memory; yet for better or worse – it is reinvestment and reinvention. The model in motion.
With Luis Hemir and Eliezer Mayenda seemingly longer term projects you sense it will be over to the newest recruits to fill the hole left by Stewart’s departure. Mason Burstow, on loan from Chelsea, and the capture of Nazariy Rusyn on a permanent contract, are both now asked to shoulder the responsibility of delivering goals.
To that end Burstow’s goalscoring record is not particularly significant; his lack of experience thus far the likely factor here. As tempting as it is, snap judgements should not be made. Many may point out that at an older age, Stewart’s goal tally was less than impressive before he arrived on Wearside.
Similarly, Ukrainian forward Rusyn is older, experienced and arguably as a result more likely to make an impact. But, he is reportedly carrying an injury to his pubic bone and may also take time to adjust to the English game.
Further reason we should not wish to immediately define Sunderland AFC’s transfer window as a success or failure.
STRIKERS – ALL FOUR OF THEM
With all the above in mind, of the four strikers – yes FOUR – only one could be reasonably described as being anywhere near ‘oven ready.’ But player development does not run to a standard unit of time. Each will naturally move at their own pace. Some quicker than others with many determining elements at play here.
This should be recognised when trying to assess how likely or unlikely they all are to succeed in the short to long term.
Other departures of note are those of Danny Batth and the long-serving versatile Lynden Gooch. Much debate is to be had around the former.
Mowbray has placed his own thoughts on record around why supporters’ player of the season was unable to regain his place in the starting XI this season.
Progressive football is better suited to O’Nien’s game than that of Batth’s is his conclusion. The stats arguably go some way to bear this out. Yet, the former Stoke City man has not suddenly become a bad footballer overnight and clearly Norwich City – who play their own brand of progressive football with passes out from the back – must see something that the Black Cats feel they no longer need. For what it is worth Sunderland’s squad depth would be better for his presence in it.
Again, time will judge who is right here.
Gooch was the one departure which generated the biggest emotional wrench for supporters. Having arrived on Wearside as a youngster and having been along with us all on the journey from despair to euphoria and everywhere in between, he very much felt part of the Red & White ‘family’, destined to be a one club player.
Sadly, it was not to be. Again, his experience and leadership qualities – like those of Batth – will be missed. How keenly, we will not know until the campaign progresses.
MIND THE GAP
One area of the pitch that the club was unable to address was of course that defensive midfield role.
Reportedly the club were in talks to capture Portuguese central midfielder Miguel Crespo’s signature but his wage demands were seemingly too lofty.
Corry Evans was arguably as big of a miss than Ross Stewart last season and as great as Dan Neil and Pierre Ekwah have been and continue to be, their consistent strengths – currently at least – are in the attacking side of the game not the defensive.
The lack of depth behind them is also a major concern. This should be a position that is rectified in January as an urgent priority as it is a problem that has lingered for too long.
Moving on to other notable new arrivals and we have yet to see Nectar Triantis and Jenson Seelt in any meaningful action, other than Carabao Cup and Under-23 games. The same is true with Nathan Bishop too. Although, they certainly make up in physicality what they lack in experience.
In fact a lack of height and physicality is something the recruitment team have fully addressed during the summer. A box ticked following the Black Cats being exposed in this regard several times last season.
Bradley Dack appears to have been a different proposition in respect of his profile. He had his best game against Southampton at the weekend, and at 29, one of the elder statesmen of the squad, he set the tone superbly early on for Sunderland.
His pressing was crucial to success on the day and you could see his leadership on the pitch was constructive for the younger players around him. It will be hard to drop him on this form.
THE BETTER BELLINGHAM?
At 17, Jobe Bellingham also seems a real genuine talent. Height, power, pace, technical ability and a willingness to learn.
Perhaps the only thing missing will be his ability to perform consistently. Naturally you assume this will come with age. It is likely we will see Mowbray bring the youngster out of the side at some point to the longer term betterment of his overall game. The Black Cats certainly have options now at the top end of the pitch to be able to do this.
In regards to deadline day itself, Adil Aouchiche and Timothee Pembele in particular are arguably two of the most exciting prospects based on their pedigree. Both have experience of top-flight football in France. Although they only have 118 senior appearances between them.
But, again Sunderland surely know they are bringing in real talent here. The question is how quickly can that talent be realised on the pitch?
IS AGE JUST A NUMBER?
While we are on the subject of young players, the summer transfer window reduced the average age of the squad from 22.8 (already the lowest in the division) to 22.6.
This, despite Mowbray having previously said he felt the balance between youth and experience was not quite right. The relevance here is squads which get promoted are typically older.
Of the some 15 clubs to climb out of the Championship since 2015 only two had an average age lower than 25.6. They were Bournemouth and Brentford at 24.7 and 24.4.
Based on that data it would seem the odds are stacked against Sunderland to reach the Premier League promised land, especially when they then choose to reinvest in even younger replacements.
Yet, these are the odds the club are choosing to play – adapting the ‘Brentford model’ already an outlier for success, and then tweaking it to possibly (statistically at least) make promotion even trickier to achieve.
The data-driven evidence over many seasons is working against the club here despite play-offs last season. Mowbray is perhaps only too aware of this. Once again, certainty cannot be declared. But, objectively true statements born from multiple seasons do not suddenly become false after one victory, even a good one. The statistical facts are after all still facts.
With this in mind you may declare it is seemingly unlikely Sunderland will reach the Premier League any time soon. Yet, it was a 19-year-old who executed three Maradona turns to set up a 16-year-old to score the Black Cats’ fifth goal of the afternoon from the bench against Southampton on Saturday. It is worth noting the opponents in question are widely tipped for automatic promotion.
Perhaps Sunderland is positioning itself to buck the trend.
If the question is whether Sunderland AFC’s transfer window was successful or not – the simple answer is that surely remains unclear. Yet, what we do know, with absolute 100% cast iron certainty, as last season showed us and the weekend proved once again, it is exciting finding out.