At the turn of the year things were looking very grim indeed for Sunderland. They had failed to pick up a single point in December and were in serious danger of getting cut adrift with Villa at the foot of the table.
Fast forward six weeks and things finally seem to be looking up. Yes, the club remain in 19th place but the recent vast improvement in performances combined with an unexpected victory at home to Manchester United and a last gasp point at Anfield has generated a genuine feel good factor around the club.
Sunderland now find themselves just a point behind fourth bottom, Norwich; which is in no small part down to January recruits Lamine Kone, Jan Kirchoff and Wahbi Khazri.
To describe the Wearsider’s approach to signings as ‘scattergun’ in recent years would be an understatement. Martin O’Neil tried a quality over quantity approach, although ultimately was undone by trying to implement his style of counter attacking football with little pace in the side. The signing of Danny Graham proving to the final nail in the coffin for the Northern Irishman.
Then came the Director of Football model, which in theory should minimise the risk when signing a player. Ideally, it should provide continuity with the transfer policy surviving the change of managers which lays down the identity of a football club.
However, the implementation could not have been worse. When you introduce a model with the purpose of creating stability, appointing Paolo Di Canio is the equivalent of pouring petrol on a fire in the hope of extinguishing it. This error of judgement was just the tip of the iceberg. The man tasked with working alongside Di Canio was former agent Roberto Di Fanti; a man who’s the only experience of player recruitment was negotiating contracts. Almost inevitably, this was a disaster and despite the club billing the appointments as the “dawn of a new era” by February 2014, both Di Fanti and Di Canio had left the club.
For men who were on Wearside for such a short period of time the effect they had was devastating. 14 players came in but few were up to Premier League standard. Jozy Altidore and Emmanuel Giaccherini were the big money signings, but Altidore became something of a joke figure and Giaccherini despite flashes of talent was rarely fit for purpose in Premier League football.
Remarkably, Sunderland were able to swap Jozy Altidore for Jermain Defoe, but the recovery from a bad piece of business has not always been this easy. Many of the signings were on disproportionately high wages compared to their abilities. This has created a huge problem for the club.
The signing of Valentin Roberge sums up the dilemma. The Frenchman is currently on much higher wages than he could expect to enjoy elsewhere, therefore is reluctant to move despite not turning out for Sunderland since August 2014. The club are also struggling to find potential suitors, his lack of experience in England means few Championship clubs are prepared to take a chance on him and his high wages means a move to a European League is unlikely. So Sunderland are stuck with a player who isn’t good enough for top flight football, but cannot free up the wage bill by moving him on.
This trend continued under the new Head Coach/Director of Football duo of Gus Poyet and Lee Congerton. Initially the set up made more sense with Lee Congerton having experience on the coaching staff at Chelsea as well as being Sporting Director at Hamburg on a shoe string budget. Whilst Gus Poyet had a typically South American, methodical style of football and more importantly an identity the club could build its transfer dealings around.
However, in reality this never worked with Congerton and Poyet frequently clashing over who to bring in and no cohesive strategy was ever formulated. The signing of Jermain Defoe in January 2015 encapsulated such a lack of strategy.
Although Defoe’s goals this season will be pivotal to keeping Sunderland up, at the time the signing made little sense. Obviously people were delighted to bring in a player of his quality whilst moving on Altidore in the process, but Defoe simply didn’t fit into a Gus Poyet side.
This resulted in the Head Coach abandoning his methodical game and searching desperately for a system which would suit Defoe. He tried playing 4-4-2, which left the side looking desperately unbalanced and directionless, he also tried three at the back with little success. Essentially a whole Head Coach’s philosophy had to be changed to suit one player.
This sums up Sunderland’s transfer policy of the last few years. A number of players who sound good on paper with decent pedigrees who have either been a total disappointment or who have simply not fit into any system preferred by a manager or head coach. Every transfer window a number of players come and go, but the reality remains the same. Season after season the club find themselves entrenched in a relegation battle.
However, things seem to be changing under Sam Allardyce. Despite their lowly league position, a report published after the summer transfer window of 2015 showed Sunderland have the seventh highest wage bill in the league.
In just one transfer window Allardyce has addressed this problem more than his predecessors. At times he has been ruthless, the star of last season Costel Pantilimon was sold to Watford to reduce the wage bill, showing faith in Vito Mannone and young Jordan Pickford. Another high earner Stephen Fletcher was loaned out to Marseille whilst Danny Graham and Jordi Gomez went out on loan to Blackburn.
This in itself was credible enough, with some high earners moved on, but it is his signings that have proved even more impressive. Lamine Kone has proved an instant fans favourite scoring the winner against Manchester United and proving a goal threat from corners while also adding much needed strength to the back line, dominating in the air and most memorably flattening Yaya Toure on his debut.
Wahbi Khazri has also proved a revelation since signing. For a long time, Sunderland have been let down by the quality of their set pieces, despite the occasional flashes of brilliance from Seb Larsson. But Khazri has been exceptional so far as demonstrated by his goal and superb assist for Kone in the 2-1 win over Man United as well as showing incredible energy levels and work rate.
After a nightmare debut at White Hart Lane, Jan Kirchoff has also quickly adapted to life in England with a commanding display against Manchester City, showing a great range of passing. Although not having the same impact, Dame N’Doye impressed against United, showing good link-up play despite being played out of position.
The impression made by the new signings is to Allardyce’s credit, he has shown pragmatism in identifying the weaknesses of the squad and moving quickly to strengthen it whilst freeing up the wage bill. He also resisted the temptation to panic buy on transfer deadline day despite Sunderland being short of quality in the fullback areas.
So, even though it is early days there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic that Allardyce can take Sunderland in the right direction. He has already proved that with a proper scouting network there is little need for a director of football.
It is little coincidence that since the closing of the transfer window, Sunderland have produced two excellent performances in which the new boys excelled with the other game still resulting in a credible point at Anfield. Although it’s important not to get carried away, the new signings have rejuvenated the club and hopefully this can be the start of improved recruitment and relationships between the players and fans.
Featured image: all rights reserved by Ben Sutherland.