“What strikes me is that we had seven players under the age of 22 in that team today. There’s not a lot of experience there at all. Then we have had some experienced players come in, but they have not played any minutes – they are literally going from a standing start.”
Sunderland’s new head coach Alex Neil was forthright in his view.
His comments came as he met reporters for the first time following a limp away point down at Plough Lane.
But this was not a critique of his team’s performance. This was instead a stinging assessment on the club’s recruitment team.
Despite having been on Wearside for only five minutes, Neil has already been able to deliver a very accurate appraisal of the squad. Whether this honesty embarrasses the ownership group – under mounting pressure for more transparency – is unlikely.
But it should do.
January has come and gone and given where we are at this stage of the campaign, the Scot must be left pondering how he can possibly have inherited a team so ill equipped to deal with the rigours of the season’s conclusion.
Where to start? Well, Sunderland took a risk by going all in on youth in the summer.
To their credit, it was a gamble, which, up until winter set in, was arguably paying off. However, come the transfer window, it had become readily apparent some calmer, older pros were required to immediately come in and steady the ship. The younger players (most of whom are playing their first full season in men’s football), could then take a breather, having run their tank dry.
It was time to supplement that youth with guile and experience.
Even with a change in head coach, January should have been a moment for minor course correction. Instead, it was an abrupt volte-face which weakened our chances of promotion. Alex Neil has plenty to ponder as a result.
Criminally, the recent window saw only one match fit, senior experienced player arrive on Wearside, in the shape of Danny Batth.
Patrick Roberts joined having hardly featured on loan for Troyes. 19-year-old right back Trai Hume signed from Linfield and did not make an appearance until recently, despite an injury crisis at full-back. This is less a critique on his potential but more a reflection on where he is in respect of his development and readiness for League One battle.
The romantic return of 39-year-old Jermain Defoe certainly is one to warm the heart. Yet, because of only two short substitute appearances all season, he is, unsurprisingly, lacking match fitness. Once that is gained, can he still contribute the amount of work his side needs from him? What we know for sure is even goals cannot come while his teammates are unable to get the ball to his feet.
Jay Matete, from Fleetwood, has seemed a prospect since his arrival and it’s satisfying that he has gone straight in. However, in a team already lacking the experience of an older head, it is something the 20-year-old cannot yet bring to the table. And at 21, Jack Clarke, on loan from Spurs, also falls into this category.
In short, Sunderland needed experienced players ready to feature straight away.
What they got were individuals either lacking experience on the pitch or minutes in the tank. In some cases they sadly got both. As Christmas approached, for those with even a cursory glance at Sunderland’s weaknesses, is it possible to look upon those who arrived and conclude – at this moment in time – they provide the best chance of helping secure automatic promotion? This writer does not believe so.
Of course, for the Black Cats, January was not just about who arrived but also who left.
We are asked to believe it is ‘like for like’ in respect of the number of central defenders at our disposal. Kristjaan Speakman stated as much in the club’s recent Unfiltered podcast. We had four to choose from before and four can be called upon now. That is the claim. Yet, to look upon it in such overly simplistic terms is to ignore several major factors – the individuals themselves, their attributes and those now available for selection – Bailey Wright, Callum Doyle, Danny Batth, and Arbenit Xhemajli.
Through the exit door went Tom Flanagan, Denver Hume, Aiden O’Brien and Ollie Younger.
Wright has proven to be injury prone and indeed is just back from a spell on the sidelines. Xhemajli, at 23, has yet to kick a ball in the league and is returning from a career-threatening injury. Doyle is 18 years old playing his first season in senior football. Batth fitted the profile of what was required but has been part of a defence which conceded eight goals in two matches and is also, as it happens, now injured too.
Such is the lack of depth at Sunderland now, should Dennis Cirkin pick up an injury there are no other left-backs available. Should Wright have suffered a setback at the weekend we would have been reliant upon Doyle and Xhemajli. Speakman can proclaim it as much as he chooses, but in real terms, it is hardly ‘like for like.’
We should ask ourselves – how have we arrived here?
Is our current squad predicament to do with the club saving money? Did players need to leave to free up wages in order to re-employ Defoe? Was the latter’s arrival a cynical signing by the ownership group in an attempt to increase crowd attendance at the Stadium of Light? Was the window down to just simply bad planning?
Whatever the reason, Sunderland have, by their own design, weakened their chance of promotion this season. Even the play-offs seem uncertain.
The recent transfer window has left more than just Alex Neil scratching his head. Yet while this is the hand he has been dealt, it is one others should be held accountable for.