Sunderland could push for the top half of the table or be fighting relegation next season.
Manager: Steve Bruce
Position Last Season: 13th
Transfers in: Marcos Angeleri (Estudiantes, £2m), Titus Bramble (Wigan, £1.5m), John Mensah (Lyon, loan) Simon Mignolet (St Truiden, £2m), Ahmed al-Muhammadi (ENPPI, loan), Nedum Onuoha (Manchester City, loan), Cristian Riveros (Cruz Azul, undisclosed), Danny Welbeck (Manchester United, loan).
Transfers out: Lorik Cana (Galatasaray, £5m), Kenwyne Jones (Stoke City, £8m), Daryl Murphy (Celtic, £1.5m), Conor Hourihane (Ipswich, free), Nyron Nosworthy (Sheffield United, loan).
Sunderland had rather a mixed season last term. When the Black Cats beat Arsenal 1-0 on November 21st, everything was going quite smoothly for Steve Bruce and his side. Victory over the Gunners meant they had collected a point from games with both Liverpool and Manchester United and only lost to Chelsea of the traditionally top four sides, with Darren Bent scoring against each.
After that though, the Black Cats slid down the table in a quite remarkable collapse – going without a Barclays Premier League win in 14 games – and they almost found themselves in a relegation scrap.
It’s difficult to explain why Sunderland completely fell away. Astute signings such as John Mensah, Lorik Cana, Lee Cattermole and Darren Bent had seen the Wearside club look an excellent prospect for a top half finish, but that mid-season collapse scuppered all those hopes.
£10m record signing Darren Bent was a huge success. The ex-Ipswich, Charlton and Tottenham striker has scored wherever he has played, and his 24 Premier League goals proved crucial in keeping Sunderland safe. Indeed, while nearly all Sunderland players last season could be accused of inconsistency, Bent never went more than three games without scoring.
There were plenty of games where he was the only Sunderland goalscorer, such as 1-0 wins over Bolton Wanderers, Liverpool (with the minor aid of a beach ball), Arsenal, and Hull, while he salvaged draws for his team against Portsmouth (twice), Everton and Blackburn.
Without suggesting that he had no assistance for his goals, crude logic would thus indicate that in these games Darren Bent’s finishing won sixteen points for Sunderland last season. To take away that total from Sunderland’s Premier League points finish of 44 would leave them with 28 – the same amount as 20th placed Portsmouth, who were docked nine points for going into administration.
Of course, this should only be read as an illustration of how much Sunderland relied on Darren Bent last season – and how well he delivered.
Kenwyne Jones has departed for Stoke, but Steve Bruce summed it up nicely. “On his day, you can look at Kenwyne and say he’s worth £40m, then on another day you’ll think, ‘Come on’. That’s Kenwyne.”
Too often Kenwyne Jones flattered to deceive at Sunderland, and £8m seems about a fair price. Manchester United starlet Danny Welbeck has been brought in on loan to provide additional goal threat, and at 6’1″ he may add an aerial presence as Jones did. Ghanaian defender Mensah has been re-signed from Olympique Lyonnais – a coup for the club after his stunning World Cup, and Nedum Onuoha will increase competition at the back.
Last season’s captain Lorik Cana has departed – quite probably because of his ten yellow cards. Steve Bruce’s scouting network in the Americas looks set to serve him well again though, with Cristian Riveros and Marcos Angeleri both capped by their respective nations of Paraguay and Argentina. While Titus Bramble of course had a fairly err0r-prone spell at arch rivals Newcastle, he was honed into a solid performer under Bruce at Wigan, and given a chance by the fans at the Stadium Of Light he could also prove a bargain signing.
The other thing Sunderland need to fix for the upcoming season is their disciplinary record. 82 yellow cards and nine reds was by far and away the highest total in the league, and if Sunderland are to avoid suspensions to key players they will need to improve substantially.
The Black Cats are one of the more difficult teams to predict this season. If Sunderland can avoid a seemingly random form catastrophe, they could well push for the top half of the table. Equally a serious injury to Darren Bent could see them fighting relegation. With their first seven matches including clashes against Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United, Steve Bruce will need to keep the squad’s confidence high.
It’s clear that Sunderland have a strong Premier League team on paper. Whether they can live up to their potential is anyone’s guess.