As Sunderland fans we all know that if a week is a long time in politics, then it may as well be a lifetime in football.
But even by these crazy standards, the last few days have seemed to be something of an outlier.
This time last week, most people were full of optimism ahead of our season opener against Ipswich Town and our head coach was sounding confident that there would be two fairly imminent arrivals at the top end of the pitch.
Fast forward to little over 48 hours after our competitive campaign had begun, and we’d been dumped out of the Seldom Seen Energy Drink Cup, lost our first match of the league season and Mowbray’s post-match press conference had been delayed by over an hour due to him holding further transfer talks with Kristjaan Speakman.
At first glance, this is nothing to be worried about, lots of teams have had slow starts before going on to win the league at a canter, but like most things at Sunderland, a cursory glance at the situation doesn’t tell the whole story.
If, at the end of last season you had told me that by this point in the window, we would have signed two centre backs, two strikers, a versatile midfielder, an attacking midfielder, and a new goalkeeper I’d have been pleased.
If you’d told me that we’d also still have Jack Clarke, Patrick Roberts, Anthony Patterson and Dan Neil at the club I would have regarded the business as nothing short of excellent, while the contract extensions of Dan Ballard and Dennis Cirkin have also been extremely welcome.
The principle of what we are trying to achieve is perfectly logical, Nectar Triantis, and Jenson Seelt have the potential to be quick, dynamic, ball-playing centre-backs and ideally this is the profile of player we should look to attract.
It is also pleasing to see that our lack of physical presence from last season has been rectified to a large extent, with Bradley Dack being the only new signing who is shorter than six foot.
But when you scratch beneath the surface, there are cracks that if not solved could prove to be increasingly problematic if they are not addressed in the coming weeks.
THROWING THE BABY OUT WITH THE BATTH WATER
As it stands, our defence should theoretically be the least of our concerns. Dan Ballard, despite being only 23 has over 50 Championship appearances under his belt, Danny Batth offers a wealth of experience and Luke O’Nien is an experienced head who can cover every position in a back four or five.
However, if rumours are to be believed, Batth may find himself departing Wearside come the end of the transfer window which would leave us very vulnerable in defensive areas.
His experience in such a young squad is worth its weight in gold but he is also fantastic in games where the opposition put lots of early crosses into our box, and as an out and out stopper, he is about as reliable as you will find at this level.
This would still leave four centre-halves, but as we saw at times on the opening day of the season, O’Nien occasionally is exposed as not being a natural centre-half and if you’re brutally honest, it would represent a downgrade if he was our first choice in that position all season.
Seelt and Triantis are both good options for the future but Seelt has already had injury problems since his arrival and Triantis failed to impress against League Two opposition. This is not a criticism of either player but as we saw last season with Aji Alese, it can take players with no experience or a lack of Championship background a while to settle in.
This, in my opinion, encapsulates a big problem throughout the squad. I am positive about our approach in terms of signing players with potentially high ceilings for not a lot of money but we are currently running the risk of leaving these young lads exposed.
The Batth rumours are disquieting enough but the potential departures of Lynden Gooch and Alex Pritchard give us even more cause for concern.
Pritchard arguably changed the game when he came on against Ipswich and was our standout performer against Crewe and despite struggling at times last season, Gooch is a player who knows Sunderland inside out and made valuable contributions during our run to the playoffs.
These players can all have a positive impact on the squad and drag some of the inexperienced lads through games.
It could be argued that in the case of Alex Pritchard, we already have a ready made replacement in Dack but it’s difficult to see anyone being brought in to replace either Gooch or Batth.
Experience is one of the many variables in football that is hard to quantify and is often conspicuous by its absence rather than something you necessarily notice when an older player is on the park, but you only have to look at our previous recruitment to highlight its value.
SCORING THE SIGNINGS
Despite our transfer structure overtly promoting youth, many of its major successes have come from a sprinkling of seniority.
In the summer of 2021 we brought in four permanent additions and five loanees, the four permanent additions were Corry Evans, Alex Pritchard, Dennis Cirkin, and Niall Huggins.
Despite his injury record and relatively slow start to his time at Sunderland, Evans has proven to be a long term asset to the club and was invaluable in the first few months following promotion to The Championship and Pritchard also played a huge role across both seasons. Between them Evans and Pritchard boasted over 450 games at a higher level than League One.
Cirkin was an excellent addition and dispute suffering from burnout and injury early on in his Sunderland career, has excelled in the Championship and clearly has the ability to one day play in the Premier League. Huggins has shown some promise, but his chronic injury record has limited his impact.
Of the loan signings, Callum Doyle made an impressive start before suffering from more severe burnout than Cirkin, and now plays for promotion favourites, Leicester.
Conversely, Fredrick Alves saw his loan terminated and highly thought of youngsters Leon Dajaku and Ron Thorburn-Hoffman rarely featured in the second half of our promotion season.
In January 2022, aside from the vanity project of Jermain Defoe’s return, our incomings were extremely successful, Batth, Jack Clarke and Roberts to this day are first team regulars when fit and Clarke and Roberts have proven to be among the most talented Championship wingers on their day.
Jay Matete also showed glimpses of quality in League One and was a key part of Plymouth’s title-winning side last season.
Naturally, the additions of Clarke and Roberts were not risk free, despite them having more ability in League One than ought to be considered polite.
Since successful loans at Celtic, Roberts career was nomadic to say the least and Clarke suffered from a lack of opportunities following a big money move from Spurs.
However, both of these players had experience of playing at much higher levels than the league we found ourselves in and after gaining match fitness have been outstanding additions who could feasibly be key players in promotion chasing Championship sides.
This trend continued into the following season with Dan Ballard and Ellis Simms taking to our first season back in the second tier like a duck to water, following successful stints at Hearts and Millwall.
You could argue that Amad Diallo is something of an outlier as he established himself as one of the best players in the division, despite only playing a handful of senior games before his arrival.
However, in many ways he proves the point regarding players with little football under their belts who take a while to get going.
Despite his outrageous talent, Amad didn’t start for Sunderland until October 22nd and didn’t regularly hit his potential in terms of performances until after the World Cup break.
It is also noteworthy that Mowbray had to remove the United loanee from our starting XI for a period of time due to exhaustion.
Of the other three lads we signed on deadline day, Edouard Michut went on to have a good impact, but he didn’t even make the bench during his first month on Wearside and didn’t make his first start until our final game of 2022.
The PSG loanee failed to complete a full 90 minutes during his time at the club, while Abdoullah Ba and Jewison Bennette also didn’t play a full game during the 2022-23 season.
In terms of January additions, Pierre Ekwah had a fantastic end to the season, but he didn’t complete 90 minutes for the lads until the play-off semi final games against Luton.
Issac Lihadji, who was seen by some as Amad’s medium to long term replacement, hardly featured and has already left, while Joe Anderson is currently on loan at Shrewsbury and was hardly trusted to play last season despite our injury crisis in the heart of defence.
Joe Gelhardt fit the profile of playing at a higher level and had a decent number of games under his belt, but the majority of his football at Leeds was off the bench and was not the out and out striker that Sunderland had operated under with Simms and Stewart in the first half of the season.
Again, it was telling that despite his tenacity and improving displays, he only completed 90 minutes for us twice, even though he was the only registered striker at the club.
THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT, THOUGH?
Naturally, people will be reading this thinking, ‘but hang on, we got to the playoffs last season with all these young lads.’
This is very true and everyone involved deserves enormous credit for achieving that despite the odds but during the run-in for the most part we had the likes of Batth until his injury versus Huddersfield. Gooch, Pritchard and O’Nien seeing us through games with the magic of Amad, Clarke and Roberts producing moments of magic to gain us points.
This season, we don’t have Amad and even if a fairytale return did materialise on deadline day, he is currently out with an injury and if we were to lose our more experienced players we could be in for a long few months.
My earlier reference to the length of time it took players to adapt was not to deride their ability or potential ability in any way but it is illustrative of how many variables come into play everytime we sign a player.
The loss of what seniority we have means that the likes of Ekwah who are only just finding their feet will have to take on the role of a more senior player this season.
Jobe Bellingham is another player who clearly has immense potential and has played an impressive number of minutes for a 17 year old but again, he only played the full 90 for Birmingham twice throughout the whole season.
I understand that in the era of managers being allowed to substitute half of their outfield players every week, it will naturally become less common for the majority of players to play all game, every game.
However, if we don’t retain our experienced heads, we will be expecting bit part players to play far more minutes than they’ve ever been exposed to.
In terms of strikers, it’s incredibly unfortunate that one of our new signings has already sustained an injury but once again against Ipswich we were in a situation where we ended the game without a forward on the pitch and played the full 90 against Crewe without one.
I have no doubt that we will be trying hard to bring in at least one more, and if Ross Stewart stays our situation will become less drastic upon his return, but this is still a long way off and he will need a reasonable grace period after his lay off to rediscover his form.
Hemir has the physical attributes to be a good striker and his movement and goalscoring record during pre-season was impressive, but he was visibly exhausted after less than an hour against Ipswich and wasn’t even risked as a sub versus Crewe.
It’s simply not a situation that can be allowed to go on and quotes from Mowbray suggesting that a potential addition could be our third- or fourth-choice target does little to get the pulses racing.
This may come across as negative, but it is not my intention to simply slate everything the recruitment team has done, I’m merely pointing out that much of their success so far has been down to signing players with a degree of experience.
Since Kyril Louis-Dreyfus took control in early 2021, we have gone from a team that couldn’t get out of League One to a team who achieved a 6th-placed Championship finish.
This track record cannot be labelled as anything other than excellent, but our points total last season would have been enough to achieve a play off place just once since 2010.
Therefore even a slight drop off in terms of points accumulation could see us be sitting in a mid-table position.
Obviously, we could go on to beat Preston and Rotherham in our next two games and things will look much brighter; but if the ambition of the club is to challenge for the playoffs and push towards promotion again, the next few weeks could be absolutely pivotal and I just hope we get it right and don’t kill the optimism and excitement that last season generated.