Season Preview: Sunderland

by Kevin Coleman

It was a season of two halves for Sunderland last year. By the end of January, despite a small hiccup around the New Year period, Sunderland were on course for a comfortable finish in the top half and a European place. By May, Sunderland fell backwards as far as tenth – level on points with West Brom who had a late surge towards the end of the season. If you had told a Sunderland fan that fact on January 31st, they would have laughed right in your face.

As Sunderland turned the penultimate corner before the home straight, they only had five losses to their name – two of which came in the space of two days. A phenomenal record for a club of Sunderland’s stature, and one the likes of Liverpool and Tottenham would have been envious of. By May, the Black Cats had trebled their season’s tally of losses to fifteen – remarkably losing ten times between the beginning of February and the end of the season. Including two separate runs of four losses, Steve Bruce’s team literally fell part in the season run in – ending all hope of a European finish and a top six break through. And even more astonishing was that, even in the very centre of the table, they were just eight points from safety.

It’s hard to put a finger onto why Sunderland capitulated so resoundingly. You could say the loss of Darren Bent in January to Aston Villa was a major factor (Villa ended up ahead of Sunderland by one place). Perhaps it was the relatively young squad which was backboned by a couple of players new to the Premier League and what it laid down. Who knows, but one thing is for sure – Steve Bruce hasn’t sat around this summer, and has strengthened his squad in the hope of not achieving the same faith this coming season.

Last season: 10th
Manager: Steve Bruce
Odds: 1500/1
In: Connor Wickham (Ipswich, £8m), Craig Gardner (Birmingham, £6m), Wes Brown, John O’Shea (both Manchester United, undisclosed), Ahmed Elmohamady (ENPPI, £2m), Wong-Don Ji (Chunnam Dragons, £2m), David Vaughan (Blackpool, free), Sebastian Larsson (Birmingham, free), Keiren Westwood (Coventry, free), Roarie Deacon (Arsenal, free)
Out: Jordan Henderson (Liverpool, £20m), Steed Malbranque (St Etienne, undisclosed), Cristian Riveros (Kayserispor, loan), Nathan Luscombe (Hartlepool, free), Robbie Weir, Michael Kay (both Tranmere, free), Jean-Yves M’Voto (Oldham, free), Liam Noble (Carlisle, loan), Boudewijn Zenden, Dan Madden, Nathan Wilson, Michael Lamb, Andrew Harrison, David Brown (all released)

Keys to the season

Well, not completely falling apart in the second half of the season and dropping dramatically down the table will be on Steve Bruce’s wishlist ahead of the season. Bruce will also be hoping that his big money signing last summer, Asamoah Gyan, will be firing on all cylinders this year – making us forget that Darren Bent ever existed. If they can get the Ghanaian working, and hope Connor Wickham hits the ground running in his debut season at Sunderland as well as in the top flight, then goals will be nothing to worry about.

Losing, on the other hand, is a big deal and Bruce has certainly set about trying to deal with that. Defensively he’s acquired two very experienced Premier League players in John O’ Shea and Wes Brown, who have been there done that in England.

Sunderland seem to have a squad good enough to do what they did in the early half of last season’s campaign but sustain it until the campaign finishes. With gritty, hard working and Premier League proven players, there’s no reason they can’t do it.

The Team

Asamoah Gyan impressed in his first year at the Stadium of Light, having signed last summer from Rennes after an eye-catching performance in the World Cup. Having seen Danny Welbeck return to Man Utd, Sunderland have put a lot of faith in £8million signing from Reading, Connor Wickham. The young English striker was linked with a number of top Premier League clubs but chose Sunderland, where he’ll have the opportunity of a lot of first team football right from the get go.

Elsewhere Bruce has added relegated players Craig Gardner and Sebastien Larsson to his squad. The former has been very impressive over the last two seasons, popping up with a number of goals from midfield and can be a big asset to Sunderland’s midfield alongside the hard working Lee Cattermole and the spark of Stephane Sessegnon and El-Mohamady.

Defensively, one would expect  John O’ Shea and Wes Brown to both start when fit but Bruce also has Titus Bramble, John Mensah and Anton Ferdinand to choose from. He also has a collection of goalkeepers at his disposal, having added Kieren Westwood this summer to challenge Craig Gordon and Simon Mignolet for the number one jersey.

Key Player

Having invested a lot in him last year, Sunderland fans will be expecting another fruitful season from Asamoah Gyan. With a season under his belt, he’ll be looking at around fifteen goals and upwards and has the players around him to achieve that target.

Fixtures

Liverpool (A), Newcastle (H), Swansea (A), Chelsea (H), Stoke (H)

Not the easiest of starts, but an opening quintet of games that Bruce will be looking for nine points or so. Newcastle, Swansea and Stoke are all beatable, while the prospect of Liverpool and Chelsea won’t be easy I’m sure Sunderland won’t be backing down from a fight in those games. Bruce should be aiming for a minimum of seven points from those five, but nine is very much achievable.

Where will they finish?

Last season, despite a very poor end, sowed the seeds of a Sunderland side more than good enough to lay claim to a high top half of the table finish and that’ll be the target for this year. If the new striker partnership can get going, with a decent midfield and a strong choice of defenders Sunderland should have a good year. 8th.

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