Assessing our transfer window – two fingers up to Alex Neil, or are we still short?

Michael Lough takes a look at Sunderland's transfer business

For the first time in what seems like years, transfer deadline day on Wearside was a tranquil state of affairs.

There were no Yann M’Vila cryptic instagram posts, Wee Phillie was nowhere to be seen outside of the Academy of Light and no former player returned for ‘one last dance.’

The loan departure of Carl Winchester was one that suited all parties and there wasn’t even a tentative rumour linking any of our best players with a move away.

Overtly, this all sounds very encouraging, in an ideal world you would have your business taken care of before the final day and as we’ve seen before, last-minute panic buys rarely work out.

Despite this, there seems to be a great deal of debate among supporters about the success of the transfer window and the overall structure at the club.

Football is a very emotive game, and I am as guilty as anyone for letting my heart rule my head when I post things on social media, but at the moment there seems to be two very distinct schools of thought.

People either seem to think our recent transfer business has stuck two fingers up to Alex Neil and his comments about a lack of backing in the market, and others think we are still short in almost every key position and the club is a mess behind the scenes.

From a positive viewpoint, the fact we have a recruitment structure at all is encouraging, before Speakman’s appointment our transfer policy seemed to consist of whether you were Tony Coton or Phil Parkinson’s address book.

We also appear to have learnt our lesson from last season, where our managerial search was somewhat of a shambles, with Roy Keane being publicly pursued for a fortnight before he turned us down and Neil was installed as Head Coach.

This time around, Tony Mowbray was in the dugout before our next fixture and four new signings were unveiled at half time during our 3-0 win over Rotherham United.

This is how any modern football structure should work, managers or head coaches should be fairly interchangeable and be able to work under the model in place at the club.

In this regard, Mowbray is a very sensible appointment, the former Boro boss has a good track record when developing young players and favours an attacking, expressive style of play.

In terms of recruitment, there have been obvious plus points, both last season and over the summer just gone.

Dennis Cirkin is an excellent example of the success of the model, a high potential young player on a long term contract who clearly has the ability to grow with the club (although I just hope Spurs have forgotten about the buy back clause.)

Ross Stewart, Alex Pritchard, Corry Evans, Jack Clarke and Danny Batth also remain first team regulars in the Championship, and Patrick Roberts along with Nathan Broadhead made significant contributions as the lads secured promotion from League One.

In recent months, the additions of Daniel Ballard and Elis Simms have the perfect blend of potential and plenty of experience of high quality first team football and while Amad Diallo has only played 17 senior games in his career, he commanded an enormous transfer fee when he was sold to Manchester United in 2021.

Michut is another exciting addition and the fact he has played six first team games for a club of PSG’s stature is encouraging, as is his public desire to play as much first team football as possible at such a tender age. However, I would feel a lot more comfortable with his signing if it was supplemented with some experienced Championship heads.

Jewison Bennette, while highly-rated, will take some time to adapt to a new language, culture and way of life as well as a totally new style of football and Abdoullah Ba has played all of his limited first team football in the French second tier.

Aje Alese is another with huge scope to grow into a competent first team regular but prior to his arrival at Sunderland he had made just 12 league appearances, all of which came below Championship level.

In Alese’s case, if he continues to struggle to adapt it is not too much of an issue as in the form of Bailey Wright, Danny Batth and Luke O’Nien we have experienced heads who can fill in that area, but our pursuit of a centre back right up until transfer deadline day potentially says a lot about his immediate first team prospects.

Where we don’t have the luxury of this experienced backup is in the middle of the park, last season although Corry Evans was a lynch pin in our promotion, he still missed 13 matches due to injury, and his total of 33 appearances was the most he had made since the 18/19 season.

Evans is influential to the type of football we look to play with assurance and calmness in possession and his defensive capabilities.

Without him in the side, we will be reliant on the likes of Matete, Ba and Michut to step up to the plate.

O’Nien is another candidate to step into this role, but the jury is still very much out on whether he can be a capable midfielder at this level.

I would like to stress that I am trying not to come across as negative in this piece and I think there is much to be hopeful, the morale in the squad is fantastic at the moment and the performance and atmosphere at both the Norwich games shows just how united the club feels right now.

However, this is how I want it to be, I don’t want to see a squad of young players struggling to cope with the demands of this league without a nucleus of senior pros to guide them through those tough times.

In a strange way, the Qatar World Cup may also benefit us with a enforced month’s break for our players which will decrease the chance of burnout and then we only have four more games before the January window where we can reassess the squad.

My biggest fear is that we haven’t learnt from last season in terms of the squad being slightly overpopulated with younger players. I understand there is a model to adhere to, but it must have flexibility.

In the summer of 2021 we signed youngsters, Dennis Cirkin, Nathan Broadhead, Leon Dajaku, Callum Doyle, Ron-Thorburn Hoffman and Frederik Alves.

Although Cirkin was a roaring success, at one point around February time he looked completely shot and burned out as he was thrown back into the side with no cover following his injury.

Hoffman didn’t feature again for the lads after a 2-1 defeat to Doncaster Rovers in February, Alves was sent back to West Ham in January, Callum Doyle hardly kicked a ball under Alex Neil and Leon Dajaku struggled for form and fitness throughout his first season here.

The overreliance on youngsters took its toll and the appointment of Neil covered over the imbalance of the squad to a large degree.

We have now found a system that suits the players that we have, but given our lack of options at full-back, playing four at the back is an improbability yet we have an abundance of wingers and a lack of cover upfront.

I sincerely hope that my concerns over squad balance are wrong and I still believe we can have a very good season and I am right behind the players and the manager, but I hope that the pressure on the young lads to perform is ultimately not too much and the personnel proves to be Championship ready as the season goes on.