Come December 25, when Matt Smith turns into Peter Capaldi at the end of the Doctor Who Christmas Special, it will not be the first regeneration witnessed this year.
That particular honour belongs to Sunderland. Some may call it a revolution, and they have a point, but then I would be making references to Les Miserables instead of Doctor Who, so for everyone’s sake let’s call it a regeneration, okay?
Semantics out of the way, this new Sunderland is almost completely unrecognisable to that of previous years; much more Smith-to-Capaldi than Tennant-to-Smith. Paolo Di Canio is the man in charge, and combined with Director of Football Roberto De Fanti and Chief Scout Valentino Angeloni there is very much an Italian feel to the TARDIS club, and a whole new way of doing things that is, on the whole, much more continental than we’re used to in the North East (where continental constitutes getting an espresso with your morning Greggs pasty). It’s terrifying, it’s exciting and no one is really sure what’s going to happen, and after years of the tried-and-tested (-and-failed) method, it’s exactly what is needed.
Last Season: 17th
Manager: Paolo Di Canio
Ins: Mohamed Diakite (Lazio – free), Valentin Roberge (Maritmo – free), Cabral (Basel – free), David Moberg Karlsson (Goteberg – £1.5m) , Jozy Altidore (AZ Alkmaar – £8.8m), Emanuele Giaccherini (Juventus – £6.6m), El-Hadji Ba (La Havre – undisc.), Duncan Watmore (Altrincham – undsic.), Vito Mannone (Arsenal – £2m)
Outs: Matt Kilgallon (Blackburn – free), Titus Bramble (released), Simon Mignolet (Liverpool – £9m), Ahmed Elmohamady (Hull – £2m), James McClean (Wigan – £2m), Alfred N’Diaye (Eskisehirspor – loan), Danny Graham (Hull – loan)
Everything. Well, most things. See above, basically. The main focus of pre-season has been on getting the players fit. Really fit. We now have a squad of players capable of lasting not just for 90 minutes in a football match, but then going on to defeat Mo Farah in the 10k. Even Wes Brown is fit and has come through – so far – two friendly matches unscathed. That in itself suggests some Time Lord-type shenanigans.
There’s been a wave of new arrivals, as the aforementioned double-Ds – as absolutely no one is referring to De Fanti and Di Canio as… – have set about stamping their mark on the club. First in were the freebies: Roberge, Diakite and Cabral were all done and dusted, if not officially confirmed, long before the window opened on July 1. Already, it indicated a different type of transfer target: strong, athletic players, with technical ability, who were open to Di Canio’s methods; the arrivals of youngsters Ba and Karlsson alluded to a long-term plan.
The real statements of intent, of course, came with the two big-money arrivals: Altidore and Giaccherini. It’s actually somewhat similar to the big arrivals of last summer – Steven Fletcher and Adam Johnson – with an imposing striker and a tricky winger being the marquee buys.
While the signing of Altidore is impressive, it’s the capture of the Italian playmaker that has really caught the eye. After all, this is a fully-fledged Italian international, one who plays fairly regularly for the national side, and whom Juventus – back-to-back Serie A champions in his time there – were very reluctant to sell. It is a massive coup for Sunderland, and a possible sign of where the club is headed, or at the very least where Short, De Fanti and Di Canio want it to head.
With so many players coming in, it’s difficult to predict exactly what Di Canio’s first choice XI will be. Many had expected Keiren Westwood to be number one in goal, following Mignolet’s departure, but another new arrival – Vito Mannone – has been given a chance in pre-season, and impressed to boot.
John O’Shea is, at this point, the only certainty in the back four. For all the new signings, we’re still desperately short in the full-back department, and it looks increasingly likely that Craig Gardner and Jack Colback will have to fill those positions at the start of the season. Wes Brown has partnered O’Shea in pre-season, and while his quality is undoubted, it would mean an extremely slow pairing, which is likely to be dangerous with a high-defensive line deployed. Diakite, if he’s fit, may just be the man who gets the nod.
Further up the field, it is much more exciting. Gone is the turgid 4-5-1 we saw under Martin O’Neill, with Adam Johnson getting so deep he was practically quoting Nietzche from the halfway line. Di Canio’s thus far favoured more of a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 line-up, although with Giaccherini and Johnson likely to be fairly advanced, it’s more of a 4-2-3-1 if Stephane Sessegnon plays.
Cabral looks all but certain to have one of the central midfield slots, while the manager has admitted he’s in the market for another creative central player. Up front, expect it to be Altidore with Sessegnon playing slightly behind him, at least until Fletcher returns, at which point it’ll be interesting to see who is left out the starting line-up.
There’s a few to choose from – Sessegnon, Johnson, Fletcher, Giaccherini etc – which is a nice change, so I’m going to make a slightly left-field selection and say O’Shea. He’s the captain of the side and very much the leader and Di Canio’s on-field lieutenant. His organisation of what could be, by the end of August, an entirely new back four (barring him, obviously) will be vital, as will his experience with so many young, foreign players coming in.
One to watch
Similarly, there’s no point listing here all those who are expected to shine. I’d like to say Connor Wickham, who is surely reaching that clichéd crossroads all young English footballers not called Jack Wilshere come to at around the age of 21, but I don’t think he’ll get the gametime. Moberg Karlsson looked very impressive in cameo appearances in the Asia Cup, and while he’s unlikely to start games, he could surprise a few by providing a spark off the bench.
Fulham (H), Southampton (A), Crytal Palace (A).
It’s not the trickiest opening we could’ve had and, provided our first home game actually goes ahead this year, we should kick things off with a win. Southampton away will be a tough game, and an interesting one tactically with both sides looking to play pressing football. Palace will be looking to make an impression, but you’d have to make us favourites. Overall, I’d say we can probably get 6-7 points from August.
Where will they finish
Following Sunderland, especially under Di Canio, reminds me of The Simpsons episode where Homer gets all the sugar. In particular, this quote (if anyone has a link to the clip, it’d be appreciated!).
We’ve already witnessed dizzying highs (3-0 against Newcastle) and terrifying lows (6-1 defeat to Villa). This season, while there’ll no doubt be a few more of those (though hopefully less of the latter), I’d settle for the creamy middles, and think a finish of around 9th-12th is a reasonable target.
Over to you, Paolo. Geronimo!
BPF Prediction: 16th