Surely there would be no fear of ‘relegation battles’ if David Moyes had this squad to choose from…
Sunderland supporters head into this season with more gloomy concerns following yet another summer of upheaval.
Another transfer window has passed, and yet again Black Cats supporters are lamenting a missed opportunity. While the departure of Sam Allardyce was a blow, the failure to acquire much in the way of signings was a far more pressing concern on Wearside this summer.
Keeping Lamine Kone at the club was a positive move, as was the capture of mercurial talent Adnan Januzaj, but incomings of the ilk of Donald Love, Steven Pienaar and Victor Anichebe already have the Black Cats braced for another relegation battle.
Owner Ellis Short has come in for criticism in recent times, with many questioning why he hasn’t reinvested the fees received for certain stars who have been sold throughout the years.
With a paper-thin squad, short in both quality and in numerical terms, here is what a Sunderland starting XI would look like if they had managed to keep their squad together.
Goalkeeper: Simon Mignolet
Having signed for Liverpool in 2013, the Belgian shot-stopper has received his fair share of critics. Derided for some erratic displays between the posts for the Reds, many were surprised when he was rewarded with a new long-term contract at Anfield in January of this year.
At Sunderland, he was nothing but a steady pair of hands having had to fight off the likes of Craig Gordon and Keiren Westwood for the number 1 jersey. The Belgian international earned rave reviews during his three years at the Stadium of Light, with Man City keeper Joe Hart even proclaiming him to be amongst the best in the division. The Black Cats have struggled to replace him since his departure three years ago.
Right-Back: Ahmed Elmohamady
Ahmed Elmohamady was a mainstay in the Sunderland side under Steve Bruce, operating on the right channel but quickly fell out of favour under Martin O’Neill. He has flourished under his former boss at Hull City, making almost 200 appearances for the club as they bounced between English football’s top two divisions during the past five seasons.
The 29-year-old Egyptian is deceptively fast and can provide a whipped cross – he is a useful attacking outlet for any side, and would certainly be welcome back at the Stadium of Light.
Centre-Back: Lamine Kone
Sunderland supporters will have breathed a sigh of relief that Sunderland managed to fend off the interest from Everton and keep Lamine Kone at the club this summer. The 27-year-old defender was imperial to the club remaining in the top-flight last season, having been signed by Sam Allardyce in January.
Goals against Manchester United and Everton proved crucial to their survival bid but it was his ability to keep strikers quiet at the other end of the pitch which made him invaluable to the cause. David Moyes will hope to tie him down to a long-term contract soon.
Centre-Back: Younes Kaboul
Having formed a rock-solid partnership with Lamine Kone during the second half of last season, Younes Kaboul finally started living up to the reputation that preceded him upon his arrival on Wearside in 2015.
After a slow start, the former Spurs defender ended up forming an almost telepathic rapport with his compatriot in the centre of defence, as Sam Allardyce shored up their defence.
Now back in the capital with Watford, he will be looking to continue his good form this season.
Left-Back: Patrick Van Aanholt
Former Newcastle United loanee Patrick Van Aanholt might have expected a frosty reception when he arrived on Wearside following his Tyneside afflictions, but all was soon forgotten following a series of attacking displays down the left channel.
Not the most competent defensively, the former Chelsea full-back can be a liability at times and is often caught out of position, but he has proven something of a goalscoring threat for the Black Cats in recent times.
Five goals since November has shown that the Dutchman is one of the most dangerous left-backs in the Premier League.
Centre-Midfield: Jordan Henderson
A full England international and Liverpool captain at 26, Jordan Henderson has made quite the name for himself.
Having broke into the Sunderland team at the age of 19, Henderson was tipped for big things and the Black Cats were forced to sell the club’s Young Player of the Year to Liverpool for £20 million in 2011.
Following a difficult start, where he refused an offer from Brendan Rodgers to go on loan to Fulham, Henderson has steadily improved and is now one of the most recognised midfielders in English football.
Centre-Midfield: Jan Kirchhoff
Having signed for Sunderland in January 2016, Jan Kirchhoff had a debut to forget against Tottenham. Playing as a centre-back, he was directly at fault for two goals in a 4-1 drubbing before Sam Allardyce decided to move him into a defensive midfield position for the remainder of the season.
This proved to be an inspired decision as his incisive tackling and pinpoint passing served as the catalyst for Sunderland’s upturn in fortunes. He was voted PFA Fans’ Player of the Month for April, and will be looking to replicate his feats once more this campaign.
Centre-Midfield: Grant Leadbitter
A Sunderland academy graduate, Grant Leadbitter can count himself unfortunate to have been unceremoniously dumped in 2009 when Roy Keane drafted him into his Ipswich Town set-up.
The Durham-born midfielder has gone from strength-to-strength since, however, and has been an integral part of Middlesbrough’s promotion surge over the last couple of seasons. The metronome of their midfield, he instils passion and drive.
Once he returns from injury, the Middlesbrough captain should provide some much-needed steel to the middle of the park for Aitor Karanka’s men.
However, Sunderland arguably have a very similar player already in former Middlesbrough graduate Lee Cattermole.
Right-Forward: Connor Wickham
It speaks volumes of Sunderland’s lack of options up front in seasons gone by that they might long for Connor Wickham, whose own goalscoring record at the club was modest at best.
He scored ten goals in his final two seasons at the club, but Sunderland supporters will always his unprecedented late-season burst of goals during the 13/14 season which preserved their safety for yet another season.
Able to run the channels or operate as a lone striker, Wickham is a useful option to have in a squad – however, his unease in front of goal means that he will probably never fulfil the hype that surrounded him as a teenager at Ipswich Town.
Centre-Forward: Jermain Defoe
Jermain Defoe might have felt aggrieved not to have made the Euro 2016 squad having finished as the leading English goalscorer in the Premier League last season with 17 goals. With his Sunderland team-mates misfiring, it proved to be his goals that ultimately kept the Black Cats in the top-flight.
Defoe is probably Sunderland’s most naturally gifted finisher since Darren Bent. Were he five years younger, and he would probably walk into most sides in the league.
Left-Forward: Adnan Januzaj
Adnan Januzaj first announced himself to the world at the Stadium of Light when his two strikes rescued Manchester United and David Moyes from a third straight defeat. The Belgian playmaker was one of the only positives to emerge from Moyes’ dreary tenure at Old Trafford, but since the Scotsman’s departure he has failed to kick on at Old Trafford.
Following a disappointing loan spell at Borussia Dortmund last season, Januzaj will hope to relight his fire underneath the manager who gave him his first break in English football. The winger possesses skill, balance and an eye for goal – if he shows a level of consistency, he could become one of the most exciting Sunderland players of the last decade.