Gus Poyet eventually steadied the ship last season and has shown some promise in cutting out the deadwood from the squad but survival is still the primary aim for the Black CatsGeorge Ankers
Last season was quietly extraordinary for Sunderland. Looking doomed for a long time after the Paolo Di Canio experiment crashed and burned, it took a late revival under Gus Poyet to improbably avoid relegation.
Now the Uruguayan has the chance to truly put his stamp on what was a sprawling, eclectic squad and deliver a more stress-free season in 2014-15. Goal examines how things are shaping up...
Poyet has had a reasonably promising transfer window so far, bringing in a mixture of players either already proven in the Premier League or out to prove themselves in it. The headline acquisition is that of Jack Rodwell from Manchester City, the England international desperate for regular game time after his disastrous move to the big time.
Costel Pantilimon is another to have made the switch to the Stadium of Light from City and the Romanian will tussle with Vito Mannone for the No.1 shirt. He did not always completely convince at the Etihad Stadium but is comfortably an upgrade on their previous backup options and will probably force his way into the team sooner rather than later.
The defence has been reinforced cannily, as well. For a free transfer, Billy Jones is an excellent acquisition, having performed very solidly for West Brom in recent years, while Patrick van Aanholt represents a gamble worth taking after Chelsea bought Filipe Luis rather than rewarding the Dutch youngster’s good form out on loan.
Meanwhile, centre-back Santiago Vergini – who spent the second half of last season on loan from Estudiantes to modest success – is back for a full campaign and will likely partner John O’Shea.
Jordi Gomez is another confirmed arrival, arriving from Wigan to offer a little extra creativity in midfield, and now Poyet is turning his attention to completing deals for 2013-14 loan hero Fabio Borini after securing Brighton winger Will Buckley.
Something of a clearout was badly needed to freshen up an uninspiring squad and Poyet has done that, with some regularly featuring players among those departing.
Jack Colback, Phil Bardsley and Craig Gardner made 101 appearances put together last season but none of them will be at the Stadium of Light in 2014-15. Colback has crossed the Tyne-Wear divide to join boyhood club Newcastle, Bardsley has swapped the Black Cats’ red-and-white stripes for the red-and-white stripes of Stoke City while Gardner is more or less a direct replacement for Jones at West Brom.
Ignacio Scocco comprehensively failed to impress in his eight appearances since arriving at the club in January and has been dispatched to Newell’s Old Boys for an undisclosed fee, having made not a single start in the Premier League.
Goalkeepers Oscar Ustari and Kieren Westwood have both been shown the door while veteran Carlos Cuellar, former Liverpool flop Andrea Dossena and midfielder David Vaughan are all also released.
Young midfielder El-Hadji Ba has also agreed a season-long loan with Bastia.
While unlikely to pull up any trees this season, Sunderland look healthier than they did six months ago and will probably continue to revitalise their squad over the next 12, at least.
The Black Cats are perhaps light at the back, with only seven natural defenders, but the addition of Rodwell provides some extra cover at centre-back if needed and the full-back positions should be stronger with Jones and Van Aanholt occupying them.
In the middle, they have a somewhat eclectic bunch but should be able to field some useful combinations of four and five – Adam Johnson enjoyed one or two periods of blistering form last term and the imminent addition of Buckley will add some welcome directness and drive.
His former Brighton team-mate, Liam Bridcutt, can be expected to improve and could work well alongside Rodwell in the centre. Emmanuele Giaccherini, too, should have plenty more to give after a so-so first season since leaving Juventus in a surprise deal. Lee Cattermole, however, remains something of a loose cannon.
The forward stocks looked grim for much of last term, with Steven Fletcher going off the boil (no thanks to injuries), but the emergence of Connor Wickham towards the end of the campaign arguably saved Sunderland from the drop – and if Poyet can secure Borini on a permanent basis, as well as fending off West Ham’s interest in Wickham, then the pair should continue their good work.
Meanwhile, Jozy Altidore’s exploits for United States continue to give the impression that there is an effective Premier League striker somewhere in him, waiting to find himself.
Wickham runs him close for his impact at the end of 2013-14 but new signing Rodwell is something of a catch for Sunderland and, despite his near-total absence from the City team over the past two years, will instantly become a very important member of the side.
The three-times England international looked to be just beginning to come into his potential when he left Everton in 2012 and, at his best, was showing admirable composure on the ball as well as great physical strength and athleticism.
He could be the genuine presence in the centre of midfield that the Black Cats have long lacked; not for nothing did Roberto Mancini spend £12 million to take him to the Etihad.
Poyet was not necessarily the most inspiring choice to take over from Di Canio but, after the disastrous start to 2013-14, beating rivals Newcastle in his second game in charge and going on to stay up did him a good amount of credit.
That is not to say that he had Sunderland playing exceptionally well but the likes of Johnson (intermittently) and Wickham benefited from the faith that he placed in them and a run to the Capital One Cup final did not come from nothing.
The Uruguayan still has something to prove, though, as he builds his own Premier League team for the first time properly. He has opted for some familiarity by bringing in the best of his old Brighton team and should be trusted to encourage more much-needed stability.
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A better start than last term’s one point from eight games, to set the tone, and then survival before looking any further ahead than that.
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If that can be done, then the general dearth of quality around the bottom half of the Premier League table could allow a savvier Sunderland to avoid the drop much more comfortably this time, though any thought of a top-half finish would certainly be premature.
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