A summer of significant spending may have heightened preseason expectations, but the EPL season promised so much more than Sunderland have managed.
In his first full season in charge at the Stadium of Light, manager Martin O’Neill had envisaged a strong season playing for a top-half finish in the table. That top-half finish is not out of the question still, but as it stands, he is nervously looking over his shoulder at the relegation zone.
More was expected when striker Steven Fletcher and winger Adam Johnson joined in big-price transfer moves in the summer from Wolves and Manchester City, respectively. Defender Carlos Cueller also arrived on a free transfer from Aston Villa, and Danny Rose joined on loan for the season from Tottenham.
Eleven-goal Fletcher proved an immediate success as a lone striker, although the goals have dried up more recently. Cueller formed a tight partnership at the heart of defence with John O’Shea prior to suffering injury. Rose won over the Sunderland fans with marauding runs and tough tackling at left-back.
Johnson, on the other hand, has failed to live up to his star billing as the England international winger is yet to replicate the form he showed when winning the EPL title with Manchester City.
O’Neill continued his overhaul of the Sunderland squad in the January transfer window with the capture of Alfred N’Diaye from Bursaspor to add more physicality to the midfield, and also spent £5 million to bring Swansea City striker Danny Graham to the Stadium of Light.
Graham has yet to hit it off in his new partnership with Fletcher, while N’Diaye is still adapting to life in the EPL—the pair’s introduction coinciding with a poor run of form for Sunderland.
It would appear, with Sunderland continuing to flirt with the relegation zone rather than push on and become established as a top-10 club, that major changes are still required to the first-team squad this summer.
For starters, O’Neill’s squad is not big enough to cope with the injuries suffered at regular points during the season. That is evident in the fact he named only six substitutes in recent weeks or a bench packed with defenders, who were the only fit players.
That squad is set to become even smaller at the end of the season when defenders Titus Bramble and Matt Kilgallon are out of contract and free to leave the club. Ji Dong-Won and Ahmed Elmohamady, loaned out to Augsburg and Hull City, respectively, are also expected to depart on a permanent basis.
Bit-part midfielder David Vaughan’s days at the Stadium of Light could also be numbered, as he failed to force his way into O’Neill’s plans.
With the potential of other departures, the situation could leave O’Neill needing to bring in up to eight players—new faces across the entire back four, midfield reinforcements and potentially another forward should he opt to send Connor Wickham out on loan for the season to gain experience.