EFL expert George Elek rates Sunderland’s season so far – and reveals who they should sign in January

We asked Not the Top 20's George Elek to run the rule over the Black Cats' 2021-22 season so far - and here's what he thought

“For too long Sunderland’s transfer strategy was short-termist and represented terrible value for money.”

Not the Top 20 Podcast presenter and freelance broadcaster George Elek pulls no punches.

Currently sitting joint second in the league, Sunderland have positioned themselves well in order to try and push on in the latter half of the campaign. Yet, it is hard to disagree with the broadcaster’s appraisal of what came before. Ultimately, it is what led us to where we are now – languishing in the third tier for a fourth consecutive year. Thankfully, even with some caveats, those now responsible for player recruitment appear to be a marked improvement upon their predecessors.

Sky Sports regular Elek agrees: “They now have the right processes in play to hire smart with Kristjaan Speakman running the show… where instant success isn’t required to justify the spend.”

The new recruitment team undeniably performed with some aplomb in the summer, considering a transfer budget was only reportedly agreed relatively late in proceedings. Elek was certainly a fan of the approach Black Cats took during the last window.

He said: “The smartest thing a League One club can do is prove its value as a good club to develop loan players, and there has been a clear attempt to do this, with great success in the cases of Broadhead and Doyle. Picking up young cheap talents like Denis Cirkin along with a sprinkling of experienced quality without breaking the bank in Alex Pritchard is clever. It’s a well rounded squad being built sustainably, and you can’t ask for more than that.”

Of course, a significant number of goals went out of the squad during the summer – 62 to be precise. This inevitably raised a few eyebrows in some quarters. Why would it not? The players charged with replacing those goals were largely unproven too. It was a risk. Given the Black Cats are now 10 goals better off compared with this time last year it appears to be a risk that is currently paying dividends.

“Replacing the goals of Charlie Wyke looked to be the key concern,” Elek said. “But Ross Stewart’s form has certainly softened that blow, and it’s been impressive to see Nathan Broadhead step up when Stewart’s goals have dried up.”

Despite the Lads’ clinical finishing at the top of the pitch, with 25 goals conceded, the defence has appeared less effective at the back. When compared to Rotherham and Wigan in any event, with 15 and 18 conceded respectively. True, losing an entire unit of full-backs to injury may go someway to explaining this. There have been positives for the rearguard however.

Elek said: “I think we have all been impressed with what Callum Doyle has done so far in his first loan. But Tom Flanagan looks to me to be the best bit of work Lee Johnson has done. It would have been unthinkable not long ago for him to be the pillar of consistency that he has been this season, so all credit to him and the manager for that.”

So as we approach the halfway mark there is now a chance to reflect more generally on Sunderland’s season thus far. We have our own views here of course, but it is always interesting to get an ‘outsider’s’ viewpoint, especially from one with in depth knowledge of the EFL.  Are there many betters ways to describe Sunderland’s 2021/22 season to date as this?

“Impressed for the most part, but not without some concerns.”

There are many who would agree with that assessment.

Elek added: “At the time of writing you’ve just blown Morecambe away and then comfortably seen off Plymouth Argyle so, when pairing that with the good performance in the draw against Oxford, it’s impossible to pick any holes in the recent performances.”

“Prior to that, I thought you looked to be struggling somewhat. The wins against Ipswich and Cambridge seemed to paper over the cracks as you didn’t convince in either, which was maybe unsurprising given the injury issues plaguing the squad.”

“You’ve turned that form around though without many of the key men coming back, and it might have just been more symptomatic of a manager who endures tough spells, only normally his sides don’t grind out wins during the tough spots.”

“The form of Broadhead, Pritchard and Dajaku means that the squad now has a depth to it that wasn’t apparent a few weeks ago, which should stand you well for the second half of the season.”

It is interesting to note here Elek’s remarks on Johnson enduring tough spells. That opinion certainly chimes with sections of our fanbase. Bristol City supporters may recognise those sentiments too. 

More broadly though, is there also an argument for saying the club went all in on a transfer philosophy without first considering that possibly a more pragmatic, halfway house approach might that have been more effective? Less big bang and more incremental improvement. No one would wish to see a Sunderland side made up exclusively of League One ‘plodders’ but was more of a blend of youth and experience required?

Elek says not. “League One brutes rarely represent value for money as if someone is available for a fair price then there is normally a reason! You have a decent spine of experienced players, although the loss of Luke O’Nien and Aiden McGeady does give the team a youthful feel.”

“But no, I think there is a clear blueprint for success now at the club, something that hasn’t been the case for a long time, and there is no halfway house, you have to commit to it.”

Whatever your opinion on transfer windows, it is hard not to see this forthcoming one as an opportunity for Sunderland to make (hopefully) a final push for the Championship. To that end, Speakman has now been afforded more time to embed his methods and we can be cautiously optimistic about who may be brought in.

If Elek could swap places with the Sporting Director though, and with a forensic eye on the EFL, who then would he be looking to sign for Sunderland, in the forthcoming window?

“I’m a huge fan of Elliott Watt, who has fallen somewhat out of favour at Bradford playing for a manager in Derek Adams whose style doesn’t really fit his game. He is a great combination of quality and tenacity that would fit in well at Sunderland and I think he’d likely improve for the step up in quality of his team-mates.

“I’m sure Sunderland fans would love another striker to come in, and Ipswich seems to be the place to shop there given the quality they’ve got. Joe Pigott has only played 472 minutes in the league this season and must be desperate to get out of the club to start playing again, and I could see him scoring plenty of goals in this Sunderland side. Dion Charles would be another to go after, currently frozen out at Accrington due to a contract dispute.”

So, a midfielder and two strikers. Of the three, Watt seems to be the player who is more closely aligned with the club’s summer transfer blueprint. It will be interesting to see what develops on this in the future.

To that end, some of you may remember Wise Men Say polished its crystal ball and several of our writers offered some bold predictions on where The Lads would finish in the league once the season wraps. Elek calls upon his inner ‘oracle’ and adds a prediction of his own into the mix,

“Somewhere between 2nd and 6th… Let’s go for 5th. I think Rotherham are the best team in the league by a distance and something would have to change there for them to not stay top of the pile.”

“I’d probably be a little bit less optimistic than many Sunderland fans, partly because I think we will see another characteristic poor run of form under Johnson at some point, and also because I’m a data disciple and a ~50% xG ratio for the season so far is a worry and suggests Sunderland are somewhat short of being the best team in the league.”

“This can of course change, and the recent form has been much better than that, but I’d urge a bit of caution to those who think this could be the start of a title challenge. I can’t imagine the club will repeat previous errors and be looking to splash the cash in January in an attempt to ensure promotion.”

Elek’s assessment is again actually consistent with those who share the view that Lee Johnson has that ‘streaky reputation’. It is something which is certainly proving difficult to shake off. Still, Sunderland can boast about a more organised recruitment team and also it’s strong position in the league, which Johnson should take credit for. However, the key is for Speakman to now improve upon what was achieved in the summer’s transfer window, during January and for the head coach to develop some consistency of performance on the pitch. Both of these factors could be vital if the Black Cats are to mount a serious promotion challenge.