“The squad lacks experience and it shows. Not only that, selling Ross Stewart late in the window and not adequately replacing was again, a bit of an own goal.”
Yet, if we are honest, it is hard to disagree with his opinion. When we watch the Lads play, the lack of experience and that scarcity of clinical centre forwards flashes at you in neon, on a regular basis.
However, despite this the Black Cats have positioned themselves just outside the Play-off positions, on goal difference and are two points better off in the league than at this stage last season.
There are positives to grab hold of when reflecting upon Sunderland’s season thus far then?
Justin Peach: “It’s been an interesting one. On the pitch I think the team is where they should be. So, just outside the play-offs and knocking on the door. That being said, there have been inconsistencies that have held the side back from really pushing on, something expected of a side that boasts so many young players.”
On the subject of being held back, it is difficult not to look at the off the field issues plaguing the club of late and not conclude there is considerable work still to be done here, certainly if Sunderland AFC are to fully move forward.
With a raft of problems, such as the transition to digital tickets, the club shop, the controversy around the derby ticket allocation and Black Cats Bar signage (to name but a few), in this area at least, the club appear to be well short of the standards set by supporters.
If truth be told, well short of the standards a club of Sunderland’s stature should demand.
JP: “Off the pitch it’s been just short of a disaster. From the outside looking in of course. The owners have done a good job so far but it feels most of that has been undone recently. There have been a lot of own goals and perplexing decision making that has ultimately and fairly led to many questions being asked…Then there’s the Newcastle fiasco, not bringing in a striker (yet) and more.”
Of course, we cannot assess the season thus far without mentioning Tony Mowbray. We can all have a view around whether it was the right time for the club to make a change in the dugout.
But, an outsider’s view is welcome here when seeking to make sense of the timing of it, especially when we look to contrast how others in the Championship are shaping up.
JP: “Departing with Tony Mowbray [On 4th December 2023] was probably the right decision but only if the next manager is an improvement. Mick Beale isn’t.”
Before we go any further, let us rewind to summer 2023 and take a brief look again at the Black Cats’ transfer window activity – 12 incomings and 10 out.
With ‘longer term projects’ brought into the squad including the likes of Luis ‘Hemir’ Semedo, Eliezer Mayenda et al and departures to some of the older pros, could we say with any real assuredness that the club’s approach of further saturating the squad with youth has been a success this season? After all, several of those added in the last transfer window have barely featured.
JP: “I like the overall strategy of recruiting young players because for long-term success and sustainability, it’s the right method.
“I think the squad needs more experience and leadership. The experienced heads might not be guaranteed starters, but in the dressing it can pay forward hugely, especially in a promotion campaign.”
There would be no disagreement here on that point. The loss of Lynden Gooch, Bailey Wright and Danny Batth would certainly fit the description Peach is identifying and it feels like if nothing else, their voices off the field would have been welcomed by the younger players in key moments of the current campaign.
Moving onto, perhaps inevitably, the subject of strikers and the club brought four into the squad during the summer. Yet, as we are all aware, thus far only one has scored. And, only a single goal at that.
The Second Tier presenter agrees it is an issue that needs addressing quickly.
JP: “The other obvious elephant in the room is a number 9. Mason Burstow doesn’t look ready, Semedo has struggled and Rusyn is needing to adapt to a new country, new lifestyle and team etc, so naturally, recruiting for a forward has been poor. Especially so when you consider this has been an issue since last January.”
In fairness we have not really signed a permanent, clinical goal scorer since Ross Stewart back in January 2021.
With this in mind, when we examine the club’s transfer ‘model’, it feels that there is a strong argument for saying the club’s transfer philosophy is too dogmatic with two longstanding, specific blind spots; strikers and defensive midfield cover.
This has been the case over several windows now and in generally the model does not seem to provide sufficient room for tweaks when necessary.
With no money spent on anyone over 24 years of age, a squad with average age of around 23 (youngest in division) and seemingly no desire to alter it, the club doubled down on inexperienced youth and it surely needs more experienced heads adding this month.
It is worth noting that no side has been promoted to the Premier League, in the last several years (at least), with a squad that has an average age under 24.4. It’s typically around 26 plus. So, all in all, is the model the right one if it fails to flex when required?
JP: “I don’t think the model is the wrong one that Sunderland have adopted, but you do have to break from that sometimes to ensure your squad has what it needs. Lots of young players means lacking players in their peak years. That’s a lot of experience and quality missing from a side which ultimately can impact a season. You look at Jobe Bellingham, an incredible talent. But he’s going to have games where he struggles, where he fails to take a critical chance which can influence the end result. Breaking from their current policy to ensure they have players who add value to the squad for me, is important and one that Sunderland have failed to do this season.”
So, now we have run the rule over the season so far, what positions should the club look to strengthen this month?
Unsurprisingly Peach echoes the sentiments of many Sunderland supporters.
JP: “It has to be a striker for starters. The club needs a number 9 that is not only a presence, but adds a threat in the final third. That striker doesn’t need to be prolific, having one could ensure Sunderland can mix their game up when they needed, as well as put those chances away. Look at Ipswich as a prime example. George Hirst isn’t prolific, but he knits together a talented forward line that scores a lot of goals.”
Remaining on the subject of ‘positions’ but cutting to the chase; when it comes to specific targets, who should Kristjaan Speakman, Sporting Director, realistically be looking to sign in the January transfer window?
JP: “It’s a difficult question to answer, but I would target players of experience first. Joe Worrall and Scott McKenna look to be available from Forest which could be interesting to look at. McKenna out of contract and both offer experience and leadership – two traits missing from the squad.
“The team is looking light at wing-back, I would maybe have a look at Harrison Burrows who has 7 assists for Peterborough this season. Whilst he’s 22, he’s played a lot of games and captained Peterborough as well. I believe he’s out of contract this year, or in 2025.
“As for strikers, Michael Obafemi might be worth exploring, so to would Cauley Woodrow but only on loan deals. It’s always hard to strike a deal in January for a striker.”
The departure of Mowbray and the arrival of Michael Beale has certainly been a divisive decision amongst the fanbase and there is work for the former Rangers manager to do in order to convince fans he is the right man for the job.
Reflecting upon where Sunderland AFC were predicted to finish at the end of the campaign, it would be interesting to see whether broader opinions have changed since Beale took charge.
JP: “It’s hard with Sunderland. There’s so much attacking talent and I would perhaps have backed them more under Mowbray. He’s a manager that likes to embrace the chaos and that’s probably a good thing with a young side that possesses a lot of attacking talent. Beale is a bit more placid and cautious but could still get the team singing from the same hymn sheet.”
Justin Peach’s assessments surely chime with many Sunderland supporters – his insight around the profile of potential transfer targets, even if you disagree on the individuals themselves, is one Speakman must now be considering.
If we try and put all of the off field matters to one side for a moment, it is surely evident that, in the month of January, there is a need to bring better balance to a squad lacking experience and oven ready strikers.
Both of these factors seem vital and urgent if the Black Cats are to succeed in both securing and winning a play-off run.