ROME – Sunderland's inability to keep a number of influential loanees made for an active at the Stadium of Light. Jamie Trecker looks at those changes in the Black Cats' Barclays Premier League preview.
While most of our previews have begun with a moment from each club's previous season, it's hard to avoid singling out two Sunderland moments, given the split nature of their last campaign.
The first, a good one: Nedum Onuoha's November 14th goal at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea. Go watch it. We'll wait. Picking up the ball 40 yards from goal, splitting the Chelsea defense before sliding the ball far post - it's well worth taking another moment to enjoy it.
Now, let's remind you that: 1.) Onuoah was a City loanee, and that was his only goal of the season (just his fourth ever in league play), and 2.) that goal took Chelsea the better part of two months to shake off. It was a killer strike.
The second Sunderland moment is not so good, one that took place off the pitch. When it was confirmed last January, it seemed a strange decision to ship Darren Bent off to Aston Villa. This effectively left the team without a capable striker, resulting in poor Asamoah Gyan being stranded up top alone for the next four months. Following Bent's departure, the Black Cats went into a tailspin that they didn't snap out of until April. That they still finished 10th tells you how bad some of the teams below them truly were.
Post-Bent, Sunderland went from European contenders to non-factors. Their American owner, Ellis Short, seems to have noticed. While they still they desperately need a big-game play-maker, the club has made a series of moves to add midfield depth and a couple promising strikers. Was it wise to sell Jordan Henderson to Liverpool? Probably not, but they got a lot of money for him and at least have turned around and spent it.
Spreading the money amongst prospects and veterans, foreign and domestic, Sunderland's brought in a slew of reinforcements with the Henderson money. The biggest of their buys was for former Ipswich man Connor Wickham. The 18-year old led England to the European U-17 Championship with the winning goal against Spain last May. The deal, valued at £12 million, was the biggest transfer ever for Ipswich. Also coming in was Ji Dong-Won, a Korean striker who briefly appeared with Reading in 2007-08, and emerging keeper Keiren Westwood from Coventry. Steve Bruce has also picked up some guys with a lot of miles on them - Wes Brown and John O'Shea were squad players at United and aren't going to be much better here.
Given the number of departures from the Stadium of Light, each of those acquisitions may be needed. Onuoha's departure is ironic because Manchester City clearly doesn't want him. The same can't be said for Danny Welbeck's parent club, the dangerous attacker moving back to Old Trafford. John Mensah (returned to Lyon), Boudewjin Zenden (ooc) and Cristian Riveros (loaned to Kayserispor) are also gone, leaving a number of questions as to who the Black Cats will lean on this season.
Bruce has to settle who's in goal first. Simon Mignolet looked decent when he was given a chance, but Craig Gordon was preferred until he picked up a knee injury. In front of him, there's a big hole on the right side with Onuoah gone. Little else has changed: Titus Bramble, Anton Ferdinand and Phil Bardsley were preferred last season, with Jack Colback sometimes dropping back for flank cover.
In the midfield, Ahmed El Mohamedy and Steed Malbranque will get competition for time from new boys David Vaughan, Craig Gardner and Sebastian Larsson. The only lock is the clattering Lee Cattermole in the middle. Stephane Sessegnon and Devid Meyler showed flashes but look to be squad players, not regulars.
Up top, Kieran Richardson ran flank for Asamoah Gyan; Richardson may end up moving back to left back, however, giving time to Connor Wickham.
If they can get all those parts firing, Sunderland is not a bad team, capable of settling-in as a better-than average, mid-table side. No, they're not going to win the league but seizing a place between sixth and ninth isn't be out of reach. They also could make a couple of strong Cup runs if things break right for them.