Analysis - What do next Sunderland signings say about Dick Advocaat plans?

Dick Advocaat
Dick Advocaat
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When Lee Congerton and Dick Advocaat were formulating transfer targets back in June after the latter’s U-turn, there were obvious areas to address.

Two centre-halves, a full-back, a creative midfielder, a left winger and another striker. With another couple of additions to the squad this week, Sunderland will have worked encouragingly through that list.

Advocaat will need to solve the problem Poyet couldn’t - getting goals from those three midfielders

But the imminent arrivals of Leroy Fer and Yann M’Vila in the middle of the park are intriguing (not least because of the latter’s reputation off-the-field).

Sunderland’s original blueprint was to sign Stewart Downing as the midfield schemer; the one who could control the game from the middle of the park and both score and create goals.

Yet the next two on the conveyor belt suggest Advocaat may have slightly shifted from that strategy.

Fer is much closer to replicating Downing’s creativity than M’Vila (who is a defensive-minded enforcer) and he does get goals, as the Dutch international showed at the Stadium of Light last season.

Sunderland shouldn’t be begrudged for signing Fer on loan, rather than permanently, with back-to-back relegations on his CV and a big pay packet at QPR after last summer’s £8million move from Norwich.

But will he really come in and be a regular starter?

Fer is a talent – even if Advocaat will need to get the most out of him – but he may be one of those who drifts in and out of the side, particularly with Lee Cattermole, Jack Rodwell, Seb Larsson and M’Vila competing for a place in midfield.

The capture of M’Vila though suggests that Advocaat is now looking for a more physical, energetic central midfield trio where Cattermole sits and the other two are given licence to bomb around the park.

Sound familiar? Yep, that’s the ploy Gus Poyet favoured too.

If Sunderland are to do it more successfully this season, then Advocaat will need to solve the problem Poyet couldn’t – getting goals from those three midfielders.

There were several occasions on which Larsson and Rodwell got forward to support lone striker Jermain Defoe against Hannover 96, in Sunderland’s final pre-season outing.

But it was sporadic and usually one or the other. If the 4-3-3 is to click, then both are going to be needed in the opposition penalty area to keep defenders attentive.

The three-man central midfield remains the most appropriate for this set-up of players though, not least because it offers more protection in the middle of the park than 4-4-2 for a team likely to be lingering around the bottom half again this season.

It also gives the platform for Sunderland to cause a threat down the flanks.

Advocaat wants full-backs Patrick van Aanholt and Billy Jones to be rampaging forwards regularly, while Jeremain Lens and Adam Johnson were again excellent in the 1-0 win over the Bundesliga outfit.

Despite his legal troubles, Johnson has arguably been the pick of Sunderland’s players during pre-season.

His range of passing was superb on Saturday – one first half moment where he slalomed beyond two players and threaded the ball perfectly through for Larsson was particularly eye-catching.

And in Lens, Sunderland really have produced a hefty upgrade on the existing options within the squad, with the 27-year-old looking destined to be the Black Cats’ principle attacking threat this season.

Lens’ first goal in a Sunderland shirt owed much to the goalkeeper’s errant positioning after the Dutch international had robbed centre-half Salif Sane and fired the ball into the bottom corner from 20 yards.

But with the ball at his feet, the £8million man is a livewire, strong, quick and with that low centre of gravity which Stephane Sessegnon used so effectively during his Sunderland pomp.

Given the chance, they will undoubtedly provide opportunities for Defoe, if the England striker has enough bodies around him to keep defenders occupied.

With Wickham departing imminently and Steven Fletcher missing Saturday’s game through injury, Defoe looks a near-certainty to lead the line at Leicester now.

He looked sharper and hungrier against Hannover too, although perhaps that was out of relief at not being out on the wings, as he found himself during several of Sunderland’s friendlies.

Do Sunderland still need better competition up top for the England international?

Yes, of course. The goal returns of Fletcher and Danny Graham over the last two years make that glaringly obvious.

Sunderland have been making enquiries for frontmen and it is not thought that M’Vila and Fer will be the last of the arrivals, even if any subsequent signings have to be on loan.

Advocaat badly needs more competition for players too.

It was telling that the ex-Holland boss opted to use only two of his seven substitutes against Hannover - Emanuele Giaccherini and John O’Shea, intriguingly put on the bench with the imposing Younes Kaboul partnering Sebastian Coates.

But Fer and M’Vila are big steps forward.

It’s forward where Sunderland’s central midfielders will have to look though if the problems of the past are not to materialise again.