Will this Sunderland XI be good enough to beat the drop?
Lee Congerton may not be a name that many outside of Wearside, or indeed Hamburg, are familiar with, but since arriving from the Bundesliga to be appointed Sunderland’s sporting director in March 2014, he’s the man responsible for recruitment at the Stadium of Light.
Such is the pervading scepticism that remains in England around the effectiveness of club hierarchies involving a director of football role that owner Ellis Short still has work to do to persuade Sunderland fans that this method is the best way to ensure long-overdue improvements on the football pitch.
So far, Congerton’s business in the transfer market has failed to provide sufficient evidence for either argument.
On the one hand, he has secured some notable transfer coups, namely swapping the misfiring Jozy Altidore for the proven Jermain Defoe, while he found excellent value for money with the likes of Costel Pantilimon, Patrick van Aanholt and Jordi Gomez.
On the flip side, the likes of Ignacio Scocco, Jack Rodwell, Modibo Diakite and Ricardo Alvarez have been big-money failures of varying degree. It means that Congerton’s business this summer, as he approaches a year and a half in the post, will be judged more forensically than ever.
Yet there’s a strong argument to be made that he’s already secured Sunderland’s most important signing. When manager Dick Advocaat agreed to sign on for one more year, it came after Congerton and Short spent a week persuading the Dutch boss to reverse his original decision to retire. It could prove a key moment in Sunderland’s season, given that they are 7/4 fourth favourites for the drop.
Sunderland fans are no strangers to Premier League relegation battles. Hell, they’re even veterans at the whole “miracle survival” thing, following similar last-ditch escapes under Paolo Di Canio and Gus Poyet in the past two seasons. But what Advocaat brought to the fight that his predecessors couldn’t was an air of statesmanlike calm and class. After all, this wasn’t Mr Advocaat’s first managerial rodeo.
His experience told, and a previously stale, stagnant and desperate Sunderland side found stability and leadership when they needed it most. They secured points in the big games, including another derby win over Newcastle, and stayed up with a game to spare.
In persuading Advocaat to hold off his retirement, Sunderland fans can take it as a sign that he was offered transfer assurances. With his four signings already, it is clear that the 67-year-old intends to continue with the system that worked so well at the end of last season.
The Dutch influence is clear, with a fluid front three favoured over a rigid front two, albeit with two of the three strikers expected to cover for full backs who are encouraged to bomb forward.
This explains the signing of Jeremain Lens, the Dutch international forward capable of playing all across the front, and whose main trait is a factor missing in so many recent Sunderland sides: pace.
The arrival of Celtic full back Adam Matthews is also a sign that Advocaat intends to look to his flanks to provide some penetration, with his ability with both feet second only to his natural inclination to attack in reasons why the club have earmarked the young Welshman for a starting role.
Sebastian Coates is rewarded for his strong end to the season with a permanent move, and with Younes Kaboul also arriving from Spurs, Congerton and Advocaat have effectively added proven Premier League competition for John O’Shea and Wes Brown for under £5m.
Pace is certainly not in abundance in this department, but Advocaat’s preference for a deep defensive line should mitigate for the lack of gas.
Given the failures of past summer recruitment drives that have favoured revolution over evolution, Sunderland fans should expect only one or two more through the doors, as Advocaat and Congerton opt instead to tweak and refine the current squad.
They are likely to prioritise a creative midfielder capable of opening doors from deep, protected by the engine and brawn of Lee Cattermole and Sebastian Larsson, though the pre-season form of the returning Italian international Emanuele Giaccherini may provide a ready-made candidate for that vacancy.
After that, any more incomings may depend on whether strikers Steven Fletcher and Connor Wickham remain at the club.
Here’s how we see Sunderland lining up against Leicester on August 8th:
All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing.
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