Chris Young’s Big Match Analysis: Sunderland boss faces three decisions

Charis Mavrias
Charis Mavrias
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AN AIR of diplomacy enveloped Gus Poyet at the conclusion of Sunderland’s winning finale to their pre-season programme.

As he stood on the wind-swept Heritage Park touchline, Poyet was faced with the inevitable bombardment of questions on transfers, while the 2-0 victory over Udinese was merely a sub-plot.

But Poyet was playing hard-ball.

Yes, he envisaged further arrivals before Saturday’s Premier League opener against West Brom.

Yet he refused to give any indication on numbers, nor did he confirm or deny Sunderland’s interest in the names from the rumour mill which were put to him.

It was a stark contrast to Poyet’s PR from less than a fortnight earlier.

During Sunderland’s pre-season trip to Portugal, Poyet showed no hesitation in issuing that plea for four signings in a week.

He knew exactly what he was doing with it too.

Has the Uruguayan suddenly turned over a new leaf? Not likely.

Poyet is the arch-politician and after the captures of Jack Rodwell and Santiago Vergini last week, plus his unwavering confidence over re-signing Fabio Borini, he has no need to keep ratcheting up the heat on Sunderland’s hiearchy to get deals over the line.

Yes, Sunderland need another four new signings before the end of the window, but Poyet now has sufficient fresh faces to be competitive in the opening skirmishes of the Premier League campaign.

His focus has shifted.

Given Poyet’s dogmatic belief in new signings needing to be indoctrinated into his system and footballing philosophy too, there have to be question marks over whether any players who arrived at the Stadium of Light this week will be thrust straight into the fray at the Hawthorns.

They would more than likely be included on the bench, but the starting XI against the Baggies will surely stem from those already on Sunderland’s books.

That doesn’t leave Poyet with a lot to think about though.

With Emanuele Giaccherini and Billy Jones ruled out through injury and Jozy Altidore unlikely to be up to speed until the first international break at the start of September, selection dilemmas are thin on the ground for Poyet.

The back four which started against Udinese - Vergini, Wes Brown, John O’Shea and Patrick van Aanholt - will surely continue at West Brom.

That’s no bad thing. Sunderland have looked very solid defensively throughout pre-season - encouragingly conceding just twice.

Lee Cattermole’s form at the end of last season should see him get the nod ahead of Liam Bridcutt in the holding role, while Jack Rodwell, Seb Larsson and Adam Johnson will also be incorporated in Poyet’s midfield.

Realistically, there are only three conundrums facing Poyet, none of which produced much clearer answers on Saturday:

1. Goalkeeper.

It still seems incredibly harsh to be even contemplating dropping Vito Mannone after his heroics last season, yet Costel Pantilimon has not been signed to simply intimidate the opposition bench with his 6ft 8in frame.

Neither stopper has made any high-profile gaffes during pre-season. They have only been called into action sporadically too.

On Saturday, they got 45 minutes each.

Pantilimon only faced long-range efforts during the first half.

He comfortably held a powerful, dipping right-footed shot from the impressive Luis Fruto Muriel early on and then tipped over a 30-yard effort from Loureiro Allan just before the break.

After the interval, Mannone was slightly more involved; producing a smart stop when Sunderland were already 2-0 up, as he tipped Fernandes Bruno’s near-post shot behind.

The Italian should have been beaten at the death too, when Muriel skipped away from O’Shea, but sent his shot wide of the far post from eight yards out.

Like the rest of pre-season though, there was little to choose between the two stoppers.

To nitpick, Mannone’s distribution looks to be superior. It was a characteristic of the Italian’s game last season and on Saturday, Pantilimon noticeably sent several kicks soaring into the strong wind which swirled into touch.

That could be a factor in Poyet’s decision, given the importance of possession to the ex-Brighton manager.

2. Striker

With Altidore realistically out of the running to start the opening game, it is a straight fight between Wickham and Fletcher to lead the line from the off.

Both have netted three times during pre-season and they can each make strong cases to be in the starting XI.

Poyet could of course start both of them, as he has in several pre-season outings, by using Wickham on the left. But that has been more about giving each of them minutes, rather than a hint of what feasibly lies ahead.

Fletcher has looked genuinely sharp in training and there were several excellent pieces of hold-up play against Udinese.

The Scot is doing all he can to banish last season’s air of lethargy and prove he can return to the form he showed in his maiden campaign on Wearside.

But it was Wickham who found the net against the Serie A outfit.

He had gone close early in the second when he won a free-kick, on the far left-hand side of the area, and took it himself - unleashing a powerful right-footed strike which goalkeeper Zeljko Brkic did well to parry behind at his near post.

Wickham’s chance came seconds after Vergini had given Sunderland the lead, when the Argentine defender won a penalty after he was clearly tripped by Igor Bubnjic.

Emphatically, Wickham smashed it down the middle.

Choosing between the England Under-21 international and Fletcher may be an even tighter call for Poyet than who starts in goal.

3. Left winger

Giaccherini would have been the obvious candidate if fit to occupy that slot, with Fabio Borini sidelined by a shoulder injury even if Sunderland do manage to re-sign the Italian.

But with Giaccherini out, it looks like a straight fight between either Jordi Gomez or Charis Mavrias to start out wide.

Gomez delivered the corner which Vergini cushioned home in the 56th minute and is one of those players who always look to have time on the ball.

But Mavrias, before an unceremonious tackle ended his afternoon’s work, has been one of the stand-out performers of Sunderland’s pre-season.

The Greek’s final ball still needs polishing, yet he is pacy, direct and a more natural fit for a place out wide than Gomez.

Starting Mavrias at West Brom would be a roll of the dice from Poyet, but it may be a calculated gamble.

The 20-year-old may be the best option the Sunderland boss has to work in tandem with Johnson as the Black Cats’ creative forces.

Picking apart those three dilemmas will be Poyet’s principal task this week.

Certainly, there was a sense on Saturday that his focus had shifted from the “what if?” of the transfer market, to the bread and butter of the Premier League.

SUNDERLAND: Pantilimon (Mannone 46), Vergini (Roberge 61), O’Shea, Brown, van Aanholt (T Robson 40), Cattermole (Bridcutt 85), Rodwell (Agnew 46), Gomez (N’Diaye 71), Wickham (Altidore 61), Mavrias (Watmore 75), Fletcher (Graham 71).

UDINESE: Brkic, Danilo, Allan, Badu (Bruno 74), Bubnjic (Belmonte 74), Guilherme (Dos Santos 74), Muriel, Widmer, Gabriel Silva, Heurtaux, Thereau (Lopez 69). Subs not used: Scuffet, Zapata, Jankto, Zielinski, Meret. Booked: Gabriel Silva (74)