Huge summer ahead for Sunderland
It was like the best hits from a Now We'll Taunt Newcastle album.
Still pinching themselves from the repercussions of last week’s victory against Everton, the 2,000 or so travelling souls at Vicarage Road belted out every possible anthem to lament the loss of the Magpies from the Premier League.
For possibly the first time in more than 100 years, there were even cheers from the Wearside contingent when a Newcastle victory was read out on the PA system at the final whistle.
But amongst the ditties in the party atmosphere of what was actually an entertaining 2-2 draw at Watford, Sunderland supporters half-jokingly chanted “Leicester City, we’re coming for you”.
Leicester’s title triumph has caused every club outside the Premier League’s traditional big-hitters to dream of what might be, yet there are clear parallels to be drawn with Sunderland and the Foxes’ escape from the drop last season, and the manner in which they were able to harness that momentum in spectacular fashion.
Of course, Sunderland fans aren’t expecting Sam Allardyce to be challenging for a Champions League spot next season. They’d settle for a respectable 12-13th spot after four successive high-octane, nerve-ridden escapes from relegation.
But if Sunderland are to kick-on and use the latest of their successful survival charges as the foundation for a healthier existence, then Allardyce does need to overhaul this squad. Sheer determination alone – as we have seen with 27 points from the last 19 games – won’t be sustainable throughout a whole season.
Allardyce does not need to make major surgery; half-a-dozen or so signings will suffice if they are up to scratch.
His admission on Goals on Sunday that a striker, attacking midfielder, winger and full-back were his priorities was just common sense. Land them, plus Yann M’Vila and another centre-half, and Sunderland will be in business next season.
But amidst a much-changed line-up at Vicarage Road, how many survivors will there be at the end of the summer’s transfer window?
It’s difficult to avoid obvious conclusions.
Jeremain Lens was one of Sunderland’s better creators in the ‘No 10’ role, laying on Jack Rodwell’s opening goal and then scoring the second himself with a neat finish, albeit the reservations over his lazy tracking back remained.
Yet Allardyce’s reluctance to use Lens over recent months has spoken volumes, as did the Dutchman’s muted celebration after converting the Duncan Watmore-led counter-attack for Sunderland to regain the advantage within three minutes of Watford’s leveller.
For all Lens’ undoubted ability, he didn’t look like a player desperate to regain his starting spot.
Seb Larsson predictably produced far more effort, yet there was similarly a look of goodbye when the substitute’s board appeared with his number just after the hour mark. Head bowed, he waved almost shyly towards the away end.
Wes Brown – who surprisingly didn’t appear from the bench – made a far clearer sign, with several waves towards the Sunderland fans at the final whistle.
But it is the three loanees – minus the clearly discarded Ola Toivonen – who will be Allardyce’s priorities over the coming days.
Yann M’Vila is at the top of Sunderland’s hit-list, yet DeAndre Yedlin is getting onto that piece of paper after his improvement over recent months was again emphasised with a positive defensive display, albeit he was forced off early through injury.
If Sunderland can sign Yedlin on either another season-long loan or for a reasonable transfer fee, the Black Cats could do far worse, even if Allardyce looks for another right-back.
Fellow loanee Dame N’Doye produced arguably his best Sunderland performance in his favoured centre-forward role after Allardyce opted not to risk Jermain Defoe amidst the possibility of an England call-up.
N’Doye worked tirelessly, some of his link-up play was astute and by rights, he should have got on the scoresheet after two Sunderland goals were very debatably ruled out for offside (along with a fortuitous penalty for the Hornets). Should we expect anything less from Kevin Friend?
But on a consistent basis, there surely hasn’t been sufficient from N’Doye over the last four months to justify a permanent deal from Turkish side Trabzonspor.
If Allardyce is to take Sunderland into that mid-table plateau, he needs a more prolific frontman to work alongside or instead of Defoe.
Yet whatever happens with incomings and outgoings over the next three months, Allardyce knows that there is a deeper talent pool waiting patiently in the club’s academy than just Watmore and Jordan Pickford. Left-back Tommy Robson was the pick of the three youngsters handed their Sunderland debuts. There was nothing flashy from the Stanley-born 20-year-old, he just did his job and performed the basics of the role with competence.
But it is reassuring that there is a specialist left-back in reserve to Patrick van Aanholt, particularly when that position has traditionally been such a problem one for Sunderland.
There were a few flashes of Rees Greenwood’s talent too, particularly the through-ball for Lens which he squared for Jack Rodwell to fire home the opener.
In a dead-rubber, they were big positives for Allardyce.
Now he needs the summer to be as productive as January to ensure Sunderland have the Premier League sustainability that will allow the club’s youngsters to continue being drip-fed into the first-team frame.