Connect in the back of the net
Taken from Fantasy Premier League Blog

After finishing last year’s season in 13th place, Martin O’Neill will be hoping that he can take the Black Cats to the next level, but all that will depend on O’Neill’s transfer activity in the next three weeks. 

If O’Neill brings in some high calibre signings then the passionate ‘Mackems’ will see challenging for Europe a real possibility. However, with some poor signings then another season in mid table limbo will be on the cards.

For Sunderland, the last season can be split into three sections. First there were the uninspiring and lacklustre efforts under Steve Bruce until he was shown the door. 

Martin O’Neill stepped in and rejuvenated the side, as the Black Cats went on a scintillating run until the team ran out of stream resulting in a tired and drab end to the season. But the season did highlight the fact that Sunderland are short of quality in some positions, adding to the importance of this summer’s transfer activity. 

So far this summer, perhaps worryingly, it has been all a bit quiet. Only one player has arrived at the Stadium of Light with versatile defender Carlos Cuellar being a welcome addition.  But that doesn’t mean that Martin O’Neill hasn’t been busy, with several players leaving the club. 

In fact, if Michael Turner joins Norwich then seventeen players will have been moved on by the club this summer. This includes players such as Asomoah Gyan, George McCartney and Craig Gordon. 

The mass exodus can show two things. First of all, it means that plenty of money is being freed up in terms of wages. O’Neill and billionaire owner Ellis Short have maintained their believe that they want to bring in ‘quality not quantity’ signings, so by getting rid of several high earning squad players, it could suggest that Sunderland are planning some ambitious and accomplished captures. 

Secondly, the exodus shows that O’Neill is stepping up the quality in the squad. Players such as Michael Turner have always been steady performers but his exit suggests that steady isn’t good enough. The next few weeks could see some star signings arriving on Wearside. 

However, the exodus has no sign of slowing down with some more high profile players expected to leave.  Kieran Richardson has expressed his desire to move away from the North East and with one year left on his contract, Sunderland would be looking to get a respectable fee. West Ham have been rumoured to have been watching the latest on the situation with Everton also lining up Richardson as a possible replacement if Baines was too leave. 

Ahmed Elmohamedy looks set to end his disappointing spell as West Ham are one of a few clubs registering their interest. The Egyptian winger has failed to be a regular starter and with no indication that this is set to change, the decision to sell him will benefit both the player and the club. It would also be no surprise to see some youngsters loaned out to gain some valuable experience. 

Despite the lack of strikers at the club, Connor Wickham is rumoured to be looking for a loan move to the championship, with old club Ipswich Town favourites.  A season playing regularly may be the confidence booster that he needs before he attempts to break into Martin O’Neills plans again.  

But where do Sunderland need to improve? Defensively, a left back will surely be high on O’Neill’s shopping list. Although he possesses pace, Richardson lacks a much needed positioning sense which a natural left back has. 

With his determination and grit, Bardsley has cemented his place at right back, while O’Neill may choose to secure another centre back to partner veteran John O’Shea, particularly after Wes Brown picked up an injury during a pre-season game in South Korea. 

So far this summer, Steven Warnock and James Collins have been heavily linked with reuniting with O’Neill. The suggested fee at the time was £4 million for the pair which for two experienced Premier League players, it would be a real bargain. 

Steven Warnock, despite perhaps underperforming recently would be a welcome addition as an established left back especially if Richardson was to leave. However, it looks like O’Neill will have to look elsewhere for a centre back, with James Collins expected to join West Ham.

In terms of the midfield, O’Neill will be looking to add one or two players to an already promising quartet. James McClean’s direct and powerful play helped him become one of the unearthed gems of last season, and after being disappointingly overlooked during the Euro’s for Ireland, he will be looking to establish himself as one of the league’s best wingers. 

On the other wing, Seb Larrson impressed in his first season with Sunderland, being an ever reliable performer with some key assists and goals. In the middle of the park, Jack Colback, an academy graduate, hugely impressed last season and will be hoping to repeat his performances this upcoming year. 

With an already impressive midfield with adequate squad replacements (Meyler, Gardener, Vaughn), how will O’Neill look to strengthen it? 

Rumours circulating the press had Aiden McGeady as a possible target and if it were to happen, the tricky Irish winger would be a quality signing. Despite McClean’s remarkable improvement, the club cannot rely on the youngster to perform every single game. 

If McGeady was to arrive, the competition between the players would perhaps improve McCleans ability although McGeady’s versatility could mean that they could both be tearing down the wings. 

Also, a centre midfielder with an eye for a goal and a killer pass could be a clever signing, linking up well with the more defensively minded partner (Cattermole or Colback.) 

There is also the welcome problem of where to play Stephane Sessegnon. The silky Benin international was one of the star players last season and if Sunderland can hold on to him, he will be pivotal to Sunderland’s development. 

Towards the back end of last season he was often up front by himself due to injuries where he was largely ineffective. Playing the dynamic creative player just behind the striker may be his best position where he could shine as one of the players of the season. 

Being linked with Tottenham and Manchester City shows that he is such a high a calibre player, oozing creative flair, creating many chances while having a precise shot. He is definitely Sunderland’s player to watch. 

There is no doubt where Sunderland need to improve and O’Neill’s actions could make or break the season. After Nicklas Bentdner returned to Arsenal, Sunderland are desperately lacking any experienced strikers up front. 

Ji Dong-Won and Connor Whickham, with three Sunderland goals between them, are both too inexperienced to be relied upon to make an impact while Fraizer Campbell lacks the goals to help propel Sunderland up the table. O’Neill has suggested that he might be after a target man, with Wolves having reportedly rejected a £12million bid from the Black Cats for Steven Fetcher. 

Fletcher, who proved to be one of Wolves star performers for the relegated side, does fit into the role that O’Neill is after. With seven headed goals last term and an impressive ability to hold up the ball, the possibility of Fletcher spearheading the attack with McClean, Larrson and Sessegnon providing the service is an exciting prospect and one that will surely give Sunderland some much needed goals. 

Louis Saha would be a smart signing while reports that the club are after Jermaine Defoe would suggest that Sunderland are eager to reach the next level. 

So with the season fast approaching, Sunderland do have something that they haven’t had for a long time; a manager with their full backing. After his initial impact when he first arrived at the club, O’Neill has slowly been settling down bringing in his own staff as he tries to implement his own style and tactics. 

With a full pre-season behind his regime and some quality signings, O’Neill could take Sunderland to the next level, something that the Red and White Army have always dreamt about. 

The summer so far has been full of rumours, most of them spectacular and bold claims on social network sites but it seems like O’Neill will be ready to splash the cash soon. 

With a fully fit squad and some fresh, ambitious signings, Sunderland have the potential to cement themselves as a top half table team, with the tools to challenge for Europe. 

Whatever happens in the transfer market, with O’Neill leading the club, its set to be one exciting season for the Black Cats. 

Prediction: 7th

Written by Craig Lishman
Follow me on Twitter @CraigLishman
Check out his excellent blog, I couldn’t think of a decent name.

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